Every Cloud has a Silver Lining
Distance teaching in times of global disruption is a daunting task but can also be a fulfilling experience. I have had first-hand experience teaching remotely for a university in Indonesia and for an intensive program in the US where the teachers, staff, and students all participated from different locations in the world. The pandemic has definitely transformed our pedagogical practices and education management into the level and speed no one ever imagined. This is the time when we push ourselves to the personal and professional limits and face not only challenges, but also new opportunities and potential we never thought we had. I am writing this reflection in September 2020 when the spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia has no sign of slowing down. As the saying suggests, when you cannot change the situation, you can at least change the way you respond to it.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not become a major public health concern in Indonesia until early March 2020 when the government announced the country’s first cases in Jakarta. The first official virus containment measures became effective on Sunday, March 15, 2020, which triggered the cancellation of all physical classes in my university for two days. All teaching faculty worked around the clock to make the final preparation and disseminate the guidance for online learning to our students just a day before we commenced full online teaching and learning on Wednesday, March 18. We were not, by any means, Bandung Bondowoso, a Javanese prince in the local folktale who attempted to build a thousand temples in only one night. We were not experts in online teaching. Yet, we have survived.
Anticipation and Preparation
I have to give credit to the university leadership for anticipating the future event. Since the first cases were announced, there had been many conversations about the possibilities of shifting to online teaching. My university had already had an online learning management system in place long before the pandemic outbreak. However, many lecturers had little training and experience in online teaching. In response to this situation, the university set up a one-day workshop on online learning and provided practical step-by-step instruction on how to use the learning management system such as Moodle and Microsoft Teams, and the online video conference platforms that the university provided such as Skype, WebEx, and Zoom. My department also had individual consultation sessions where lectures received direct help from a mentor. Our colleagues with more experience in online or distance teaching taught the less experienced ones. It was like a family sharing. It really boosted the spirit in the midst of the uncertain situation.
The training session proved to be very useful. Less than a week later, the government announced its first official containment measures. Schools, offices, malls, and other public facilities had to close immediately. It was Sunday when the announcement was made public. The university immediately announced that all classes would be cancelled for two days, and all teaching faculties were asked to finalize their preparation for online teaching so classes could start again two days later. It was very challenging, but the task would had been nearly impossible without the training.
We began the distance education in emergency modes. Teachers with extra miles in remote teaching had smooth sailing. They already had the materials for the asynchronous sessions that were well-integrated into the campus learning management systems. They were also well-versed in conducting synchronous sessions using the available platforms. Those with almost zero experience in online teaching took baby steps. A senior colleague even utilized his WhatsApp application to start remote teaching and gradually learned to use Zoom for later application. His students were, nevertheless, happy with the class. His expertise, solid teaching experience and genuine interaction with students compensated his lack of ability in utilizing the technology. In the emergency remote teaching, a high degree of flexibility was much appreciated.
Building Knowledge and Understanding
The transition to online learning did not receive any resistance from my students. I believe this supportive response stemmed from their prior knowledge of the pandemic situation. As students of international relations, they had followed the news about the new outbreak in China from the beginning. I still remember when a student asked me whether I was aware of the new strain of virus spreading in China and whether we should worry about its possible spread to Indonesia. It was January and I told him that he should not worry because, learning from the previous endemic or epidemic cases in China and Southeast Asia, I predicted that the virus would likely be contained in China. Even if the virus got into Southeast Asia, I predicted that it would happen without a major outbreak. I was absolutely wrong. Lesson learned.
As the virus quickly spread around the globe, I decided to raise awareness of the pandemic so my students would be well-informed and more capable in sorting out the news. There were so many rumors and hoaxes about the virus being circulated online. To avoid unnecessary confusion and anxiety, my students had to learn to find and select reliable and accurate information. So, I decided to slightly modify the curriculum for the Social Research Method course that I was teaching. Students would normally conduct a research practicum with focus on qualitative research skills such as an in-depth interview. This time, I added survey research practice into the plan and made the public perception and understanding of COVID-19 pandemic as the main topic. We started the project before the lockdown. Students worked in small groups to search for specific information about the pandemic from trustworthy sources. They also had the opportunity to clarify the information during the classroom discussion. We designed the survey questions as a group and piloted it to a focus group.
By the time the survey instrument was ready, we were already conducting distance learning. The situation turned out to be more favorable to our survey project. Utilizing the online platform, my students were able to reach many respondents and receive quite revealing results. Through this project and the follow-up class discussion, students gained better insight and understanding about the COVID-19 pandemic situation. They also helped raising the awareness about the pandemic to the community at large by using the survey. When the university switched to online teaching and learning, my students already had the background knowledge of the situation. The semester was finally over with such a mixed feeling. The pandemic was still in the air, the campus remained closed, but we were able to complete all the goals for the semester.
After the Spring semester ended, I took unpaid leave to decompress from the intensity of distance teaching. I spent the previous summers participating in a summer program in the US and enjoyed the summer vacation. This year, my alma mater offered me again the summer opportunity to coordinate and teach their Indonesian program, which is offered through the intensive Southeast Asian Studies Summer program. However, due to the pandemic, I was not able to travel long distance. The US campus also decided to only offer distance instruction for summer. Although challenging, I was intrigued by the opportunity to coordinate the teaching team and teach classes from Jakarta.
It turned out that we had the largest number of students and teachers in the program. With the participants joining from different states and continents, the first challenge was managing the time zone. I found that having a single time zone as the reference was very helpful. Since the program was administratively run by the university in the Midwest, we all used the Central Standard Time (CST) as the point of reference in all communications.
Team building was another challenge. An intensive program requires a solid coordination between teachers, students, and administrative staff. In the intensive program where instruction is delivered four hours per day from Monday to Friday for eight weeks, building a cohesive team is a must. This is a daunting task even in the physical, face-to-face setting. Keeping regular meetings with my team is helpful. My teaching team and I spent many hours designing the syllabus and weekly plan as well as discussing many aspects of the program during the prep week. When the instruction began, all teachers met online for an hour or so right after the class every day before we continued with individual work.
Keeping the Students Engaged Virtually and Physically
Students in both Indonesia and US classes share some similarities. They definitely appreciate short breaks during the synchronous session. Staring at the computer screen continuously for more than 60 minutes is not only tiring, but also unhealthy. The short breaks allow our eyes to rest and relax. Not only eyes, your body and blood circulation will thank you. During the summer program, a student used the short break to do some yoga postures. I did a quick stretching routine during the breaks and did the indoor walking exercise after work. My students and I often exchanged exercise tips or video links from YouTube.
Students are eager to participate in class activities if they feel encouraged to do so. I have several tips for this. First, incorporate the context of the distance learning into the class activities. The modification I previously mentioned for the Social Research Method course made the class more interesting and meaningful. The level of participation was high. Second, assign real-life tasks that can be completed virtually or physically, such as browsing the internet to find specific information or conducting an online mini research using different sets of keywords. Students can also access an online reading and discuss it in a small group. Role-play or simulation such as online job interview or creating a news broadcast also draw student’s attention. Indeed, N. S. Prabhu (1987) suggests meaningful tasks with information gap or meaning-focused activity will keep students engaged. Third, make the best use of the primary online platform and explore what it is capable to do from pedagogic point of view. Incorporating too many applications or platform does not guarantee success. Keep it simple. Fourth, always start with your teaching plan and incorporate the technological aspect as it fits into the plan.
Global Interconnection and Interdependence?
The COVID-19 pandemic does not only create a global public health crisis, but also intensifies the global interconnection and interdependence through information revolution. Keohane and Nye (2012,p. 213) define information revolution as “the rapid technological advances in computers, communications, and software that have led to dramatic decreases in the cost of processing and transmitting information.” In the case of COVID-19 pandemic, the information revolution transmits not only the news about the pandemic but also all rumors and disinformation, which can present threats to the present and future global cooperation.
Education is one of many sectors that has been severely impacted by the pandemic. However, education is one of the few sectors that is able to turn the tables. It transforms the information revolution into innovation in modes of distance education, whose influence and use quickly spreads around the world. While we are adapting to this “new normal” and embracing the new global culture of using, for instance, Zoom meeting platforms, levels of access are not equal. I was able to manage and participate in a reputable program in the US from Jakarta because I had the best internet provider installed at home and the most advanced equipment available to use. Many Indonesian teachers and students do not have the same privilege. Although distance education, in theory, can provide quality education to those who live far away from Indonesia’s best educational institutions, participating in such arrangement can be costly or almost impossible due to the lack of internet access.
Amelia Joan Liwe
Amelia Joan Liwe teaches Southeast Asian Studies and International Relations for Universitas Pelita Harapan. This summer, however, she was re-appointed as the coordinator of the Indonesian program in the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI), hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She performed her service from Jakarta intensively for eight weeks using Canvas and Blackboard Ultra Collaborate. She has taught SEASSI for more than 15 summers. In Jakarta, she serves as the head of the International Relations Graduate Program in Universitas Pelita Harapan. Due to the pandemic, the program has switched to remote teaching and learning too using Moodle, MS Teams and Zoom as platforms.
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