Recalled to classrooms, recalling Zoom rooms

By Ian Lim • LinkedIn

The year is 2020.

He has a full day of classes ahead of him, and there’s only 30 minutes until the first one begins.

In a trying time when the whole country’s eyes are on the daily number of reported cases, at least being able to conduct lessons online is some comfort.

Without the time to do much else besides grabbing some simple sustenance, he scrambles to his desk and watches as his computer screen comes to life. Once on the desktop, he guides his mouse towards a familiar spot – one bright blue icon with a white video camera on it.

Zoom.

The invite was sent out the day before; all he can do is start the meeting as scheduled, and hope that his students do not forget.

Before long, his audience starts streaming in, but it’s hard to tell whether they’re truly there or not. After all, all he sees are black screens with students’ names in white text over it, mics muted and all. Still, the show must go on, and so he speaks up…

“Can you hear me?”

Professor Chan Wai Lee from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Image Credit: Nicole Descalsota

For Professor Chan Wai Lee, those four words, spoken only after a minute or two of silence, mark the most memorable moment of every new Zoom class. They serve as a stark reminder that classes have become a far cry from what they used to be.

He must make sure that his students can hear him. He must make sure that none of his hardware is faulty, that his Internet connection remains stable, and that recording is in progress if the lesson calls for it. These are the trials of an educator in “Zoom University”, a “place” that students and teachers have both become all too familiar with.

Just as students feel fatigued from sitting through lecture after lecture in their room devoid of company, professors, too, have had their fair share of problems.

“Students don’t turn on their screens. They don’t talk,” admitted Prof Chan. “Even if they are trying to ask a question, they like to type in the chat box. And then suddenly, I realise that I’m not just teaching… there are many things I have to facilitate.”

Without immediate feedback from students, the tutorials began feeling very one-sided.

“With everybody’s camera turned off, you wonder, ‘Are they even listening?’”

However, as Singapore holds on to hope of returning to post-pandemic normalcy, so, too, does NTU hold on to the hope that teaching may return to the tutorial rooms.

While certain faculties had already seen a resurgence in in-person classes in the past year, the NTU President’s Office only announced on April 27 that all academic class could be conducted in person without any grouping or zoning requirements. This means that come AY22/23, a big lifestyle change awaits not just students, but the hardworking instructors who have been inundated by online lessons day in and day out.

Prof Chan looks forward to the increased interactivity that is afforded by physical classes, such as being able to better read and communicate with his students. He also thinks that the return to campus is ultimately a benefit to students, even if the teaching material is the same either way.

“You need to have interactions with your classmates,” Prof Chan emphasised. “You need to make friends, and you need to meet up with these comrades who go through the same pain as you, for you to realise that you are not alone.”

Professor Daniel New from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Image Credit: Nicole Descalsota

Another professor who is looking forward to the return of physical classes is Professor Daniel New. As a self-proclaimed “traditional” type of instructor, several of his teaching methods did not exactly translate very well over to online classes, and he had his fair share of reservations and challenges.

“Things just weren’t the same,” Prof New light-heartedly lamented, recounting the stark differences he experienced between teaching in-person and teaching online.

Prof New also highlighted the ways he had tried to engage his students in the same way he did online, which led to some humorous moments.

“My style of teaching involves me walking up and down the LT, tapping the students’ shoulders, asking them questions right on the spot… and I tried to do that during online lectures. Trust me, it did not work well!”

The past two years of experimenting with different teaching methods have given educators the chance to discover what works out for them and what does not. In Prof New’s case, he has found that the isolated nature of online teaching just isn’t his style and added concerns that his students are stalling on recorded lectures – something which worries him greatly.

Professor Ng Bing Feng from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Image Credit: Nicole Descalsota

Yet, some professors have regarded the surge in online teaching as a boon.

Professor Ng Bing Feng, for one, will maintain an online class in the next academic year, as he finds that the convenience of working from home outweighs the inconveniences.

He explained that a remote working day for him could potentially last fifteen whole hours, packed full of classes, consultations, and meetings.

“I think [moving online is] effective, because you would not have been able to pack so many meetings, discuss so many things, undertake so many tasks, if it were physical.”

Unfortunately, his newfound ability to cram a lot of work into long hours has also given rise to an unintended side effect.

“You get very tired after the whole thing,” Prof Ng admitted.

“This COVID situation has led parents and students to have the perception that teachers are available 24/7,” he recalled from a previously read paper. “To an extent, this sounds true… so there’s a lot more workload.”

While some may have their reservations towards online classes, the pandemic has created the option for educators to conduct their classes in a different –– and for some, preferable –– way.

One thing’s for sure: ultimately, online or offline, our professors remain dedicated to ensuring that our learning experience in NTU is as fulfilling as possible.

As the new school year starts and we return to our old normal, let’s all stay safe and practice good social responsibility, so that we might stay above the pandemic.