Why online university classes herald a better way forward, not a temporary fix
Here we are again, a new term in the university.
Here we are again, a new term in the university.
I conduct my three-hour seminars breathing like Darth Vader.
My students are all masked like the Sundance Kid off to rob a bank, suitably distanced from one another and forbidden to mix.
All of this is necessary because of 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 imbibe knowledge through some mysterious process of airborne osmosis.
Surely there has to be a better way.
In fact there is.
It is crucial to distinguish between the pedagogical and the social aspects of the university experience.
Pedagogically, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced lecturers into the brave new world of online teaching. The advantages of this over the traditional in-person classes are clear.
To substantiate the pedagogical advantages of Zoom classes, I conducted an experiment.
For four weeks last year, I conducted one Zoom class and one in-person class per week for my Company Law seminar group.
Note that I did not ask my students whether they preferred Zoom classes. Note also that the experiment kept two variables constant, the teacher and the course.
Nor was I present to intimidate them when they responded, since this was done online.
At the end of the period I asked the students for their opinions (the poll was anonymous). All 35 students in my class responded.
The results are as follows:
1. Are Zoom classes more convenient than in-person classes?
Very much more convenient: 51 per cent; more convenient: 43 per cent; less convenient: 3 per cent; very much less convenient: 3 per cent
2. Is it easier to ask questions?
Very much easier: 20 per cent; easier: 57 per cent; harder: 23 per cent; very much harder: 6 per cent
3. Is it easier to hear the instructor?
Very much easier: 19 per cent; easier: 48 per cent; harder: 26 per cent; very much harder: 6 per cent
4. Are you more inhibited about participating on Zoom?
Very much less inhibited: 16 per cent; less inhibited: 41 per cent; more inhibited: 41 per cent; very much more inhibited: 3 per cent
5. Is it easier on Zoom to see shared materials?
Very much easier: 29 per cent; easier: 60 per cent; harder: 9 per cent; very much harder: 3 per cent
It is quite clear that from a pedagogical standpoint online teaching is superior.
If you compare a bad teacher online with a good teacher in person of course students would prefer in-person classes.
But a good teacher who knows how to use Zoom will be able to present material better and more efficiently.
The poll results demonstrate that when properly used Zoom is better for teaching than in-person classes. This was validated by the student feedback on the course.
I invited those who had difficulty to share their problems.
Mostly these problems were due to external factors at home: Unreliable WiFi, noise, distractions.
Only two said they were uncomfortable with Zoom as a pedagogical tool.
Those students who had problems with the home environment were invited to come to the faculty and participate online from the assigned seminar room, which is what a few of my students did — fewer than half a dozen.
Others did so from their halls of residence or UTown. Some students may form study groups and work from a friend's home, as some of my Criminal Law students did.
The assertion that in-person classes are "richer" somehow is not convincing.
Wearing a mask while teaching is tiring for the teacher and tiresome for the audience.
Even without a mask, can one really see 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 referring to “four eyes” only.
Even shy students can pose questions via the chat function.
The raise hands function allows a more efficient method of allowing participation instead of the usual free-for-all dominated by the most pushy students.
Instructors can be available to answer questions via Zoom.
Students can also communicate via Telegram, WhatsApp or email, any time — the last question from a student came in via Telegram the morning before the exam.
I have conducted student consultations while in Dublin, even before the pandemic restrictions on travel.
But what of the social aspects of university life?
Even otaku need to have human contact some time in order to get a proper education.
Education is the systematised acquisition of experience, and 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 university comes outside the classroom.
There are ways to encourage this social mixing; forcing people to sit together in a classroom for three hours is not one of them.
If people are socialising during class there is something wrong with the instructor.
Not having to commute in order to attend classes frees up students’ time to do more interesting things.
The flexibility provided by not having to physically congregate in a lecture room can translate into all sorts of enriching experiences. These should ideally be student-led.
For those living in UTown or halls of residence, there is already life outside class.
Students can segue directly to participate in dance or drama, music or art, history, politics and philosophy or whatever else piques their intellectual interests.
Students who do not have the privilege of communal living can nonetheless form their own interest groups; after attending class together they can go out on nature walks or whatever takes their fancy.
Lecturers can help by promoting interests outside the narrow confines of their disciplines to broaden students’ education.
Cross-faculty modules will be easier to organise, since there will be no necessity for people to come together in one physical space.
A whole host of subjects can be integrated: Law and business, arts and science, architecture and engineering.
Why not law and literature or engineering and music, for that matter? Lecturers can be sourced from anywhere and teach from anywhere.
For the universities themselves, being freed from the constraints of finding venues for classes should make time-tabling more efficient.
Cyberspace is liberating.
Instead of having people crammed into large cavernous lecture halls, online lectures can cater to a potentially unlimited audience — not only confined to Singapore but also abroad.
Certain “star” professors can project a university’s reach beyond our shores to the world.
One might even imagine a pan-Asian university.
With students stuck in their countries until the pandemic abates, Singapore universities have a unique opportunity now to seize the future.
Imagine a course on Southeast Asian politics and history taught by lecturers from each of the 10 Association of South-east Asian Nations member countries.
Or a course on Asian art and culture with Chinese and Indian lecturers. The possibilities are limitless.
The pandemic has shown what is possible; we should not abandon these lessons in order to return to an old normal.
Not everyone has to Zoom ahead at the same time. But those who can should not be held back by those who can’t or won’t.
In this new educational environment, who dares wins; or at least their students will.
Right now too many universities are dinosaurs harking back to 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 remain mired in the tar pits and go extinct.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Professor Walter Woon is David Marshall Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore and former dean of Singapore Institute of Legal Education.