We are aware that during this pandemic, learning may be severely impacted for students as they face great uncertainties to their health, social lives, and family. It is important that in the face of massive disruption to learning, being adaptive and flexible in such a situation requires the instructor to be open-minded and creative with lesson delivery. We have illustrated this with two initiatives which were well-received by students based on anonymous feedback from an end-of-course survey.
In the first initiative, we focused on the needs of students who are forced into isolation during this pandemic and learned primarily remotely at home. Being isolated allowed these students ample opportunity to focus and reflect on lessons learned in solitude. We leveraged on this situation by directing the students’ effort towards an open-ended question which required an iterative problem-solving approach. This required the students to immerse themselves in the problem, often trying a few guesses before coming up with possible solutions. Our expectation is that students who are adequately challenged and given the necessary tools to solve open-ended problems on their own are able to learn independently. This mode of learning is suggested by Vygotsky as the zone of proximal development . Many students approached this problem by writing down their thought process before coming up with unique solutions on their own. When students were asked at the end of the semester what they liked most about the course, anonymous responses such as, “…, I have exercised my thinking ability and logical ability”, “the projects. They are fun and can activate the mind”, and “project, which has an interesting meaning, connects knowledge with life,” corroborate with our expectation. Based on the evidence we have seen so far, we believe that students who enjoyed this challenge experienced transformative learning through critical reflection. For this reason, we plan to adopt similar open-ended challenge questions to future modes of teaching.
In the absence of peer group dynamic in a classroom setting, lessons can get mundane very quickly especially when students are left to learn in a laissez-faire manner . In the second initiative, we examined the role of the instructor in trying to maximise engagement with the class remotely. During this pandemic, availability of masks, sanitisers, food and toilet paper is a major concern for everyone. By using toilet paper as a tongue-in-cheek example application of Calculus in real-life situation, we drew in and held the students’ attention. A student mentioned, “some interesting activities, for example, buying toilet paper. I think these activity can let us be more interesting in learning calculus, and let us know calculus is useful in our daily life.” This was corroborated by another student who felt that connecting learned knowledge with current events improves interest in the subject. This finding agrees with the learning principles suggested by Ambrose et al. who stated that when students find positive value in their learning activity, they are likely to be fully engaged and use their time effectively to achieve the desired learning outcome . In our experience, tailoring lesson topics to relevant events combined with sensible use of online collaborative tool sufficed to maximise engagement with student remotely. Although far from perfect, this is a prudent strategy for interacting with students.
This pandemic has presented us with unique challenges as well as opportunities. It seems, however, that not many stakeholders are ready to fully embrace remote learning. This is indeed the case for our students based on their feedback. Out of 20 students who responded, 17 students prefer face-to-face classroom lesson compared to remote learning. Only one student felt more at ease having online lessons, while two students did not have a preference. The reasons given for the majority’s preference are better focus, less interruption by family members, less trouble caused by internet connectivity and ease of communication (nothing related to course delivery or content, thankfully). One silver lining comes from an anonymous student who mentioned, “the quiz time made me felt happy and excited, since I can play game as well as enhance my memory.” This suggests that technology can indeed be a used to improve online lesson delivery and assessment. The use of online tools such as Quizziz (www.quizizz.com) and Kahoot (www.kahoot.com) will be fully explored in the future as pilot trials suggest they have a positive impact on student experience. Notwithstanding any improvement to the current pandemic situation, we may have no choice but to evolve as we proceed towards unchartered territory. From this experience we realise that there is much to be done before we can replace classroom lesson delivery with totally online learning, not the very least the impromptu ones. Remote learning is indeed an evolving paradigm which challenges instructors to use novel and creative ways to engage students.