A year of Zoom lectures and webinars
MEXICO CITY — It has been over a year since academic work migrated online, with meetings, lectures, and webinars now being conducted in various virtual platforms. Having just finished my second semester teaching online in UP Diliman (kudos to my Anthro 167 students for all the effort) and being now enrolled as a student myself in a language course at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, I would like to take this as an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned, especially since I’ve never gotten to write about this topic since the pandemic started.
First, the webinars. The upside with them is that you can reach more audiences than a physical meeting, including people all over the country and the world. I realized this early on when, back in April 2020, I spoke in the webinar “Mahirap Maging Mahirap” organized by Ugnayang Pang-Agham Tao (UGAT), the national organization of anthropologists, and we were able to reach almost 4,000 viewers—a remarkable feat considering that our conferences had never numbered beyond the hundreds. In this sense, webinars are a welcome development for educational equity.
Webinars have also allowed presenters to be anywhere in the world, liberating us from our physical constraints. When UGAT had to respond to the baseless claim last March that the term “lumad” was made up by the CPP-NPA-NDF, it was able to convene two roundtable discussions featuring anthropologists from the Philippines and the US, as well as indigenous leaders themselves from various parts of Mindanao.
But webinars can also be quite demanding in terms of time and effort, something that some organizers fail to realize. Aside from the webinar proper, speakers are asked to join “dry runs,” do pre-recordings, and of course, prepare presentations—making it as time-consuming, if not more so, as physical presentations but often without the rewards of the latter (e.g. getting to travel and stay in a nice hotel). The challenge for webinar organizers is to ensure that speakers are not unduly inconvenienced, and, whenever possible, that they are justly compensated for their time.
And then there are the lectures, which have their own rewards and challenges. Because many students don’t have access to fast-enough internet, we cannot really require them to turn their cameras on. While this is understandable, I feel that it has diminished my teaching quality. Most students don’t realize that teachers need them to be able to deliver a lecture: Their reactions, facial expressions, and sheer presence can make or break a lecture.
The student perspective, meanwhile, is equally valid. As a virtual learner, I have struggled to maintain my attention throughout the three-hour classes, and I can totally relate to my students who feel the same way.
Why do Zoom classes exhaust us, students and teachers alike? Why do I find myself reaching for an ube cheese pandesal (or two) as a reward after each lecture? Major reasons scholars have proposed for “Zoom fatigue” include lack of mobility and the presence of a visually intense but unidimensional sensory environment that we are not used to. Then there is the imponderabilia of classroom learning, from the friendships formed among students that make classes more fun for them, to the nonverbal cues and gimmicks that instructors could rely on to animate the classroom. Absent these, I end up trying to program each class more carefully, sacrificing the spontaneity I was comfortable with in physical classes.
To be fair, Zoom and other platforms have evolved over time to make things more dynamic. Breakout rooms, for instance, promote greater interaction, and supplementary websites like Kahoot and Mentimeter have allowed for new forms of class engagement. As with any new technology, perhaps online learning will get easier as we all get used to it, and like the houseplants we have acquired over the past year, I actually see Zoom lectures and webinars as enduring features of our life even beyond the pandemic.
Still, I can’t wait to be in a physical classroom. I will take even the farthest, smallest room on the fourth floor of Palma Hall, or even an open-air venue under the trees in Sunken Garden. Something is lost with online learning, and students and teachers alike deserve the chance to return to physical classes as soon as possible.
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