Attending university in the midst of a global pandemic has redefined what it means to be a student. My senses are acutely aware of the changes and challenges.
You can hear and see the difference.
Before the pandemic, the chorus of friendly chatter, the sudden interruption of a ringing phone during class and the boisterousness of students finding their next class would fill the air.
As COVID-19 started to take its grip around the world, a new normal came to pass. When classes migrated online as the pandemic lockdown began, students’ lives began to be filled with screens featuring talking heads with tired eyes. This was a challenge for the lecturer as well. I can only imagine how daunting it must be to talk to a screen for extended periods of time without getting immediate feedback through visible physical cues.
The sounds changed too. Instead of the usual campus noises, we overheard classmates’ conversations with their family, as they forgot to go on mute. We heard choppy soundbites, due to problematic network connections. We also had to learn to be patient with delays and lags, as well as those awkward silences between questions and that collective sense of relief when a brave soul responded. Do not even get me started on giving a group presentation online when each member is in a different location.
I was in Singapore as a Masters student at National University of Singapore Business School when the local government imposed a two-month-long circuit breaker in April. Although I was in one of the most technologically advanced and developed countries in the world, we were not ready for the impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures. I don’t believe anyone in the world was.
As the spring semester was still in session and safety guidelines were evolving in reaction to the situation, it was a scramble for faculty, staff and students to move everything online. Together, the school community got everyone through the finish line.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight with my work experience in coaching and facilitation, I wanted to take action to improve this situation. I reached out to the Business School’s Deanery and luckily for me, they were open to ideas.
We started to work as a team. I became the voice of the students to make the school aware of the challenges faced in a virtual learning environment. It was also an opportunity to put myself in the shoes of the faculty who each had their individual style of teaching. It was a listening exercise to understand how some classes were structured, for example, in some modules, students watch pre-recorded videos before class and discuss the topic in the classroom; in others, the entire learning journey included a frequent exchange between the professor and students.
As the economy gradually opens and curbs are eased, the school is able to accommodate face-to-face lessons, but only up to classes of 50, and with safety distancing measures in place. However, some students are either living in cities in lockdown, unable to return to Singapore due to travel curbs, or would prefer to stay home.
While there was (and is) still some hope that the COVID-19 situation might be controlled and we may all be able to return to physical classrooms one day, we had to find a flexible solution.
Hybrid classes allowed us to do that. Imagine a live Zoom session, conducted in a physical classroom – serving both the students in the room, and those who tuned in online remotely. With my knowledge in online workshop facilitation, virtual tools, and the support of NUS Business School, I began teaching all professors and facilitators how to make the most out of this situation. I also wanted to make them aware of the students who would be on the other side, and what challenges they might have in the online class.
Together with the School’s management team and teaching council, I developed individual coaching and teaching guides to prepare the faculty for the various scenarios they may face in the fall semester that started in August. This also included one-on-one sessions with the faculty to put them at ease, help them gain confidence, and innovate in the classroom. While this calls for a big mindset change, to paraphrase spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, we need to rise above the limitations when faced with a crisis, or perish. I am touched by the humility and eagerness that the faculty has shown me, and I am honored to have made a difference.
For myself, I have donned my mask and returned to the classroom once again (in person or virtually) in the shoes of the student since August. While the smells and tastes will be different with that mask on, I am grateful to be able to reap the benefits of attending class physically in an environment with safe distancing.
Like many of my peers, I do not know how the next few months will pan out, but I am proud that the school will lead the way in experimenting with hybrid teaching and listen to its students to ensure continuous improvement in the learning environment. Because what is important at the end of the day, is that every student deserves to get the best educational experience, no matter the circumstances.
Kerstin Hoeger is a Master of Science in Management student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.