Commentary: Why online college courses herald a better way forward, not a temporary fix
Here we are again, another semester at the university.
I conduct my three-hour seminars breathing like Darth Vader.
My students are all masked like the Sundance Kid gone to rob a bank, suitably distanced from each other and forbidden to mingle.
All of this is necessary due to the notion that in-person classes provide a “richer” educational experience, as if students need to breathe the same air as the lecturer in order to soak up knowledge through a mysterious process of learning. airborne osmosis.
Surely there must be a better way.
In fact, there are.
It is crucial to distinguish between the pedagogical and social aspects of the university experience.
Pedagogically, the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled teachers to enter the brave new world of online teaching. The benefits of this over traditional in-person classes are clear.
To substantiate the educational benefits of Zoom courses, I conducted an experiment.
For four weeks last year, I hosted one Zoom class and one in-person class per week for my corporate law seminar group.
Note that I did not ask my students if they preferred Zoom lessons. Note also that the experiment kept constant two variables, the teacher and the course.
Nor was I there to intimidate them when they responded, since it was done online.
At the end of the period, I asked the opinion of the students (the survey was anonymous). All 35 students in my class responded.
The results are as follows:
1. Are Zoom classes more convenient than in-person classes?
Much more convenient: 51%; more practical: 43%; less convenient: 3%; much less practical: 3%
2. Is it easier to ask questions?
Much easier: 20%; easier: 57%; harder: 23%; much more difficult: 6%
3. Is it easier to hear the instructor?
Much easier: 19%; easier: 48%; harder: 26%; much more difficult: 6%
4. Are you more inhibited to participate on Zoom?
Much less inhibited: 16%; less inhibited: 41%; more inhibited: 41%; much more inhibited: 3%
5. Is it easier on Zoom to see shared documents?
Much easier: 29%; easier: 60%; harder: 9%; much more difficult: 3%
It is clear that from a pedagogical point of view, online education is superior.
If you compare a bad online teacher with a good in-person teacher, students will of course prefer in-person classes.
But a good teacher who knows how to use Zoom will be able to present the material better and more effectively.
The survey results demonstrate that, when used correctly, Zoom is better for teaching than in-person classes. This was validated by student feedback on the course.
I invited those who were having difficulty to share their problems.
Most of these problems were caused by factors outside the home: unreliable Wi-Fi, noise, distractions.
Only two said they were not comfortable using Zoom as an educational tool.
Students who had problems with the home environment were invited to come to the faculty and participate online from the assigned seminar room, which a few of my students did – less than half a dozen.
Others did it from their residence or UTown. Some students may form study groups and work from a friend’s house, as some of my criminal law students have done.
The claim that in-person classes are somehow “richer” is not convincing.
Wearing a mask while teaching is tiring for the teacher and tedious for the audience.
Even without a mask, can we really see the students in the back row of the class?
On Zoom, we can see each student face to face, unter vier augen or empat mata as the German and Indonesian idioms aptly put it, both of which refer only to the “four eyes”.
Even shy students can ask questions via the chat function.
The raise of hands feature allows for a more efficient method of enabling participation instead of the usual free-for-all dominated by the most insistent students.
Instructors may be available to answer questions via Zoom.
Students can also communicate via Telegram, WhatsApp or email, at any time – a student’s last question arrived via Telegram the morning before the exam.
I conducted consultations with students in Dublin, even before the pandemic restrictions on travel.
But what about the social aspects of university life?
Even otaku need to have human contact for a while in order to get a good education.
Education is the systematized acquisition of experience, and the university is the place to do it. But education does not mean being confined to the narrow channels of arbitrary courses.
The rich experience of college comes outside of the classroom.
There are ways to encourage this social mix; forcing people to sit together in a classroom for three hours is not one of them.
If people are socializing during class, there is something wrong with the instructor.
Not having to travel to attend classes frees up time for students to do more interesting things.
The flexibility offered by not having to physically congregate in a conference room can translate into all kinds of rewarding experiences. These should ideally be student-led.
For those who live in UTown or in university residences, there is already life outside the classroom.
Students can segue directly into participating in dance or drama, music or art, history, politics and philosophy or whatever piques their intellectual interests.
Students who do not have the privilege of living in a community can nevertheless form their own interest groups; after going to school together they can go on nature walks or whatever they like.
Lecturers can help by promoting interests outside the narrow confines of their disciplines to broaden student education.
The inter-faculty modules will be easier to organize, since there will be no need to group together in the same physical space.
A multitude of subjects can be integrated: Law and commerce, arts and sciences, architecture and engineering.
Why not law and literature or engineering and music, for that matter? Speakers can come from anywhere and teach from anywhere.
For the universities themselves, freeing them from the constraints of finding course locations should make timetable management more efficient.
Cyberspace is liberating.
Instead of having people crammed into large, cavernous conference rooms, online conferences can cater to potentially limitless audiences – not just confined to Singapore but also overseas.
Some “star” professors can project the reach of a university beyond our shores into the world.
One could even imagine a pan-Asian university.
With students stuck in their countries until the pandemic subsides, universities in Singapore now have a unique opportunity to seize the future.
Imagine a course on Southeast Asian politics and history taught by lecturers from each of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Or a class on Asian art and culture with Chinese and Indian speakers. The possibilities are limitless.
The pandemic has shown what is possible; we should not abandon these lessons to return to an old normal.
Not everyone needs to zoom at the same time. But those who can should not be held back by those who cannot or will not.
In this new educational environment, who dares wins; or at least their students will.
Right now, too many universities are dinosaurs reminiscent of a 19th century paradigm of in-person lectures and tutorials that has become obsolete.
But some dinosaurs will evolve into birds and fly. Others will get stuck in the tar pits and die out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Professor Walter Woon is David Marshall Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore and former Dean of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education.