Another dot in the blogosphere?

Right things the right way

Posted on: November 17, 2020

I would wager that most institutes of higher education (IHLs) worldwide now have a semester or two of managing continuity during the pandemic.

Those in Singapore are no exception, but we have had a less challenging time. If I had to rank the reasons for this, my top pick would be how we are more compliant about wearing masks. As a result, we wait with bated (and masked) breath on when Phase 3 will start.

But we do not need to wait for government agencies to provide exact details for every rule and policy. They cannot because contexts in each IHL are different.

For example, one department in an IHL might have typical a tutorial class size of 50 while another might only average 15. The number of students is not the issue, the other contextual elements are:

  • The class of 50 might be in a room for 200 while the 15 might be in a space for 20.
  • The 50 might be indoors with unmodified air-conditioning while the 15 suffer/enjoy a humid outdoor studio.
  • One class might involve more student-centric methods (and thus more social interaction) while the other is didactic.

Context matters.

So what is an outfit that provides professional development do when challenged to run courses for future instructors/facilitators?

One agency I work with desperately jumped on Zoom but chose not to record videos of the online sessions. This meant that absentees could not watch recorded sessions as part of a make-up lesson. They had to be catered to individually and this was costly in terms of time, effort, and money.

Another agency I know locked down its methodology by converting workshop sessions to lecture groups. This reduced interactivity and modelled the wrong way of reacting to a pandemic.

Both agencies had decently long enough runways to prepare and change, but both opted not to try strategies like:

Reducing class sizes
Both agencies had tutorial class sizes of 30. This seems to be a magic administrative number that is tied to financial turnover and the physical size of existing classrooms.

How about reducing each class size to 15 instead and have two runs of each? This reduces the density of students while balancing the opposing needs of physical distancing and social interaction.

Take one agency’s classroom for example. Students sit in groups of 5 or 6 at group tables. Consider how these tables could station just 3 students with halved class sizes.

Barriers
Each table in the example I gave could be equipped with Plexiglas (or equivalent) barriers so that masked students can communicate with group mates. Such tables-as-stations would allow a variety of instructional strategies such as peer teaching, think-pair (now trio)-share, jigsaw, etc.

A barrier to such a move is a failure to imagine possibilities or to consult with pedagogues. Another barrier is various costs.

Costs
The cost of barriers is a one-time financial investment. But there are other costs like paying a set of facilitators to teach more often, or recruiting more staff to teach extra sessions.

There is also the cost of time and effort to redesign content, strategies, and assessment, as well as to make revisions from inevitable hiccups or failures.

There is no avoiding such costs. The financial cost is actually easier to overcome because it is relatively easy to rationalise a temporary increase in spending. Any administrator worth their salt knows how to ethically and legally shift funds from one pot to another. The problem is that administrators might not wish or dare to do this. They would rather manage from a spreadsheet or play it safe.

The cost of redesigning and revising might be harder to justify because it is not as tangible as class sizes, grades, or cohorts. However, there is an administrative approach to enabling this — document everything. Write proposals, present research, record class sessions, collect feedback, craft after-action reports, etc.

Doing things differently does not always mean doing things better. But doing things better always means doing things differently. -- Hank McKinnell

We can either withdraw from the challenge of a pandemic or rise up to it. If we do the latter, I say we do the right things the right way. And we know we are on the right path when we focus on what is best for learning and learners, not what is comfortable for administrators or instructors.

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