Commentary: How ready are Singapore universities to start the new term as COVID-19 rages on?
Learning in a COVID-19 world that demands safe distance and less contact is challenging but institutes of higher learning must rise to the occasion, says NUS Business School dean Professor Andrew Rose.
SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic created much tumult. There will surely be more when the new semester begins in August in some Singapore universities.
But while the rush to online teaching was a nasty shock in March, universities all over the world have since had considerable time to prepare for the next semester. Sadly, most have made poor use of this time.
Many universities are going completely online, but few instructors will take advantage of this opportunity to change their instructional style.
Most will deliver the same lectures in the same monotones, only they will be facing a webcam instead of a classroom of students.
Most students will watch the same lectures as their predecessors, but at home, on a screen, and at twice the speed. They will absorb less material, interact less with each other and have a far inferior experience.
A HYBRID MODEL
At NUS-Business, we are trying a different approach. All our teaching will be 100 per cent available online.
Part of this has been driven by necessity. Some of our students are stuck outside the country and can’t get to NUS; others can’t or won’t go to campus, for instance because they are worried about infecting an elderly relative.
Yet something is lost when education moves online wholly and therein lies the spark in education that choice and autonomy can bring. So we have made plans to teach our students face-to-face to the maximal extent possible.
That is, all our teaching will be a hybrid; students can attend class in person, online, or both, including watching the class recording afterwards.
Even getting here hasn’t been easy. To be able to teach hybrid effectively, we have had to re-educate all of our teaching staff. Like TV show hosts, lecturers have to both address students in the classroom and cater to remote students watching the lecture live.
But you may be amazed at the allies you can make who can offer new capabilities that turbocharges change. In a wonderful irony, we took opportunistic advantage of a terrific instructor: A student.
After demonstrating her technical mastery and considerable teaching skills, our Masters of Science in Management student Kerstin Hoeger has led hybrid classes to over one hundred of our instructors, before engaging with each of them one on one, to ensure that they are comfortable with the new hybrid approach.
Students in some classes will only be allowed to attend in person on a rotating basis.
We think this hybrid approach to teaching gives a far superior experience to students. They are engaged with their lecturers, and crucially, with each other, far more when they actually see each other face to face.
Of course, we have to do our face-to-face teaching safely, with social distancing, mask-wearing, even an app that allows our staff and students to declare their temperature and health status easily.
HOW TO OFFER STUDENTS OPTIONS
We are working hard to maintain and raise the level of social capital, so that we minimise the odds of coronavirus spread within the NUS community.
We are delighted to do so, since there is a near-universal consensus that purely online teaching, to use a technical expression, … sucks.
Our hybrid approach isn’t easy. Because of the importance of social distancing, no more than 50 students can attend a class face-to-face. This affects many of our classes and students.
As we have to split up some large classes numbering hundreds into smaller sessions of not more than 50, a huge amount of planning goes into rearranging timetables, classrooms and other logistics.
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Teaching is going to have to be at odd times: We will be teaching from 8am through 10pm Mondays through Fridays, as well as Saturdays and Sundays.
We have to do that since we simply don’t have enough large classrooms (because of social distancing) to fit all our teaching into conventional school hours.
With the sheer number of ongoing classes, teaching may also be in odd spaces. We will be using all our classrooms, even old and windowless ones that haven’t been used for years.
Even so, not everyone will be able to go to attend class in person; we simply don’t have the capacity.
So, we have established priorities: First, to our new students, who have never been to NUS before; and second to our graduating students, who will be leaving NUS soon.
That is why students and parents in institutions all over the world are asking for discounts. Pure online teaching, which is ironically more expensive than face-to-face instruction, is simply not up to the task yet.
EVERY CRISIS AN OPPORTUNITY
Every crisis is an opportunity and we’ve taken advantage of the pandemic to raise the bar for instruction.
I am extremely proud the NUS-Business faculty unanimously voted in June to raise our teaching standards, a first for us.
We have decided to enforce these transparently, by making student feedback scores on each course available to our entire community.
This is another first at NUS. All faculty staff and students can now see students’ opinions of instructors, module by module.
Our faculty have always expected our students to be accountable in their coursework. For the first time ever, we now also expect our students to hold us accountable to high standards as instructors.
COVID-19 has brought about many constraints. Of course, there are many challenges. Lecturers have to adjust to a new mode of teaching. Besides more preparatory work, they may find it difficult to gauge students’ understanding or to encourage class participation during online classes.
However, some have reflected that they generally have some requisite skills to do e-teaching, and plan to take more courses to hone these skills further. We did not choose this pandemic, but we can choose how to respond to it.
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Meanwhile, students may find it hard to stay engaged during online classes, but they have found it useful when lecturers engaged them through interactive tasks, breakout sessions, or simply asked them thought-provoking questions.
The weeks, even months, ahead will test educators’ response and ability to evolve further as new teaching demands and student feedback surface.
Universities around the world, especially those with high numbers of foreign students, will have to adapt to low numbers and fewer tuition payments, ensuring students remain safe when they do return, while grappling with the collapse in executive education and a host of other pecuniary issues.
A big lesson from COVID-19 is that we cannot predict the future. But we can get through this together. What we can do as universities is to be prepared to adjust and move with the situation, with our staff’s and students’ safety as the guiding principle.
This includes complying with safety measures such as keeping to designated campus zones to minimise intermingling of students, temperature declaration and safe distancing.
Distinguished Professor Andrew Rose is the Dean of National University of Singapore Business School.