Return to the classrooms!
After two terms teaching online I looked forward to 2022 excited to try blended: a mix of face-to-face and online teaching. But then Omicron came and dashed all those hopes. If people are allowed in malls and restaurants why can’t university students return to classrooms where vaccination is mandated? This year is different from 2020 as many learned to live with, rather than against COVID-19. Unlike many colleagues who dream of turning back the clock and returning to pre-pandemic education, like waking up from a bad dream, blended is the way forward. We should not throw away gains from the pandemic.
Long before the pandemic I used Edmodo, a free Learning Management System (LMS), that had a friendly high school-looking interface. It was not apt for higher education, but I didn’t warm to Moodle, the LMS of choice in the two Jesuit universities I taught in— Ateneo de Manila University and Sophia University, Tokyo. Edmodo was a simple platform that allowed me to store and distribute my readings online. Less income for the photocopier stalls on campus, less trees sacrificed for education. All submissions were paperless and time-stamped. LMS locked out late submissions within a second of the deadline; making obsolete, the classic excuse about a pet dog ruining a physical term paper. Grade books were generated, feedback exchanged as simple as doing Facebook.
In the summer of 2020, Ateneo migrated to the Canvas LMS and teachers took a certificate course on “Adaptive Design for Learning” created by the Ateneo SALT Institute (Science and Art of Learning and Teaching) of the Gokongwei Brothers School of Education and Learning Design. Since Canvas is used in many universities abroad, there were many online articles and YouTube videos that taught you how to use it. Canvas was superior to Edmodo, and when Ateneo paid the license to use it, many features were unlocked from the free version I used for one term. Half the battle was having all my readings scanned and uploaded; submissions were defined, deadlines set.
The real challenge was recording lectures. Some colleagues simply recorded 90-minute lectures with their smartphone or computer only to realize later that what works in a live classroom doesn’t translate online, even if the lecture compared to the latest “Spider-man” or “James Bond” film. Lectures had to be divided into short, 10- to 15-minute segments, leaving little room for improvisation or meandering that makes a live class endearing. You had to be particular about lighting, audio, and editing the occasional slip of the tongue, a mere blip in a live lecture, magnified when recorded. Videos had to be transcribed leading to YouTube automatic transcripts that while far from perfect was half the job done.
Courses were asynchronous (students took the online content at their time and pace) with a few synchronous or live meetings via Zoom. I liked Zoom because students’ names appeared on the screen. However, attendance is not required and students are not obliged to be on camera making me feel like talking to a blank wall. A live camera was an invasion of privacy, but didn’t Zoom provide virtual backgrounds? A better excuse for muted microphones and disabled cameras was poor bandwidth, bad connection, or insufficient load.
When we return to classrooms, I will keep my online content and only do face-to-face for discussion and consultation. Thirty percent of my students are not in Manila, a handful actually follow the course from abroad so students need not be on campus for a whole semester but can come for one to three weeks in a term. This way we don’t waste a chunk of our lives stuck in traffic. LMS may be online but it gave me more interaction with my students because I could check if students viewed the course material, how long, and how often. Grades appeared both as a list or in graphs that drew their progress individually or against the median of their classmates. LMS gave, corrected, and graded tests; it alerted me to those who did not submit assignments leading to timely intervention and encouragement.
Moving course content online was like bringing the horse to the stream, the real challenge is convincing the horse to drink. Online education reminds us that technology is just a tool and once mastered should bring the teacher back to the fundamentals of teaching and learning. Online or face-to-face are only as good as the teachers behind the course and the students who find meaning and relevance in them.
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