2020 was a unique year, a year when everyone was forced to distance themselves from meeting people, interacting for pleasure, ie gathering, hugging, and shaking hands to show appreciation or approval. Because of the highly infectious nature of the Covid-19 outbreak among human beings, normal gestures showing human responses were restrained publicly until it has become a new norm, a new way of life, an emotionless life due to the loss of human touch.
When teaching and learning was forced to be conducted remotely, schools, universities, and other learning centers were rushed to find appropriate online platforms that would enable them to continuously connect with students for learning and for management with updates. Suddenly Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Go to Meeting, Discord, and many others have become important for teaching and learning.
The emergence of these online platforms is not new. Apparently, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram among others have existed to help us connect with friends, families, and even strangers for a wider range of friendships. People, without realizing it, have been depending (possibly addicted) to these online platforms to express their thoughts, to connect with people remotely, and to promote their businesses. It has also happened that these online platforms have become important applications in education for knowledge distribution and communication in this highly competitive world.
When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in late December 2019, and then spread rapidly throughout the world in 2020, all these new (and familiar) online platforms were seen to be lifesavers. They could ensure that learning could continue without major halts for schools or universities as knowledge transmission would continue. These online platforms seemed to be the answer, at that time, and continue to be implemented.
When December 2020 finally came at the close of the year, people around the world could hardly wait for 2021 to come with the hope that Covid-19 would be gone. Unfortunately, this pandemic seems to be out of hand and rampantly attacking people with a high number of cases each day. So teaching had to continue to be conducted online which has gradually become a new normal. It has become a normal practice (preferred by some) as they had experienced it for all of 2020. In addition, many platforms have emerged as the standard method for teaching virtual classes, digital assessments, virtual lab performances, and even virtual examinations. There are pros and cons with these new methods, and it has been a hot topic in virtual discussions, conferences, webinars and among many different stakeholders.
Recently I attended a webinar entitled Humanizing Online Learning by Professor Madya Dr Mohammad Tazli Azizan from UNIMAP. During this online seminar (webinar), the term of ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ (ERT) caught my attention as it is defined as a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis. It has recalled the moments when all educators were pushed to immediately change their teaching method to remote alternatives since there were no physical classes which often compromised teaching and learning.
At Taylor’s University and some other institutions, online teaching and learning was generally applied — called hybrid learning or mixed-mode learning. Blended learning experiences may vary widely in design and execution from school to school, but for theory modules it has been used for several years.
Not all educators are ready to change to these methods since the physical relationship in the learning environment plays a big role in gaining students’ trust and confidence in the knowledge gained. Likewise, the educators comfortably observe the students’ work progress and understanding during the sessions in class.
Thus Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), mentioned earlier, was truly an emergency moment when all the schools and universities had to shut down during the pandemic and were unable to operate classes as usual. The educators had no choice but to flip the ‘emergency’ switch on conventional methods of teaching into something considered as unorthodox methods.
Surprisingly after almost a year into this unorthodox method in teaching, almost all educators found it pleasantly convenient. Not having to drive to campus, not having to face traffic jams, and being able to conduct online classes at home without the hustle of walking to different locations within the university. The students expressed their pleasure too in online classes— not only did requirements remains the same but costs were cut tremendously. This was clearly experienced in design classes where no massive printing or model making was required.
The challenge of having a comfortably convenient method with the online classes is to maintain the humane side in imparting the knowledge to students. Being empathetic in teaching is highly encouraged and it is one of the important skills in this new era. But why is empathy needed especially during ERT? Well, this is to create a meaningful online learning between both the educators and the students. It sounds as if its more work for the educators and that is true. Educators must understand the students’ situations whereby they make have limited internet accessibility and affordability, limited online equipment and capacity, sudden changes at home environment, and many more. Many of these criteria must be considered during ERT and empathy plays a big role in maintaining self-sanity during the whole year academically. Somehow, there are discussions among educators that empathy too should be given to them as they may also suffer some of the same problems. And I do agree.
Somehow after a year plus, people have become tired and demotivated with this new normal way of life: unable to go out to work, unable to travel to see the world and to meet new friends, and unable to visit families and relatives. But will education be dying due to this change? Probably not. Instead, this pandemic has opened many opportunities to establish new ideas and methods, and to discover more meaning in what we do. It has transformed the way we teach and treat students, and colleagues. Has it been a meaningful transformation in our lives?