Considering the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and the suspension of many physical face-to-face (F2F) lessons due to the #StayHome measures, many educators have been mandated by schools and institutions to put their teachings online. Many are asking: “How do I lead my online class without losing student engagement?” and “How do I know if my students are understanding the lesson content in real-time?”  Despite the unprecedented disruptions to mankind, we need not be paralysed by the COVID-19 situations that besiege us as tertiary institution academics. Being educators, we should embrace this tumultuous crisis as an avenue to blaze a trail in online learning. As the coronavirus threat continues to crescendo, we have found glimmers of hope in some success to sustain active learning in our online classes.
Achieving Engagement with Students Remotely
Students may be distracted by any simultaneous household hustling in their homes. Hence, as we transitioned from physical F2F to online lessons, we faced the challenge of maintaining a similar level of engagement. We found that a three-pronged approach—maintain students-teachers interactions; plant regular checkpoints with live responses; and facilitate real-time collaboration amongst learners—were helpful to actively engage learners during the online lessons. In the next three subsections, we will share how the three aspects can be achieved using the various online platforms that we have experimented with.
Maintain Students-Teachers Interactions
Synchronous learning is more engaging than asynchronous learning . Synchronous learning usually adopts the usage of webinar tools such as Zoom, Google Hangout Meet, and Microsoft Teams. We used Zoom because it was linked to our learning management system at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
There were around 170 students and each lesson lasted for 90 minutes. The lessons were led by a teaching team that comprised a lecturer and teaching assistant (TA). To promote interactions with the teaching team, we encouraged students to engage on the chatbox. In every class, a TA moderated the live chatbox and could clarify students’ doubts instantly. If there were many questions raised on a similar point, the TA would sound to the lecturer to clarify before moving on with the lesson. Despite losing the physical interactions, we observed that students asked more questions using the online chatbox !
Plant Regular Checkpoints with Live Responses
Real-time responses were valuable in helping us understand students’ grasp of the knowledge. These live responses enabled us to tailor the subsequent lessons to suit students’ level of understanding of the concepts and keep them engaged. To obtain real-time responses from students, we planted unannounced checkpoints using short quizzes and polls. We found success with PollEverywhere (PollEv). We used PollEv to administer quizzes/polls and obtain real-time responses from students. Apart from PollEv, other interactive platforms such as Mentimer, Kahoot!, and Pigeonhole Live are also extremely handy in inserting such checkpoints.
Facilitate Real-time Collaboration amongst Learners
Whilst lessons are now conducted online, this does not mean the end of collaborative learning and group discussion! Breakout rooms, a built-in Zoom function, was used to divide the class into smaller groups of seven students at designated junctures. During this period, the teaching team visited the breakout rooms and facilitated the group discussions. In these breakout rooms, we encouraged the students to unmute their microphones so that they could discuss more efficiently with their peers. Screen sharing also facilitated collaborative learning. A typical group discussion lasted between three to five minutes, although additional time could be given when necessary. To encourage exchange of ideas within the class, an assigned leader from each group would share the key points of their discussions on Padlet, an online “whiteboard” the class can view publicly.
One highlight of our unique lesson delivery has always been team teaching . Team teaching is an element that piques students’ interest. It exposes students with multiple perspectives on the subject matters and encourages students to critically evaluate each perspective . Everyone in the teaching team could freely chime in their opinions on the subject matter. In addition, we invited guest lecturers to provide their expertise from another fresh perspective. We observed that students were highly engaged and were actively asking questions to our guest lecturers.
As we move away from physical F2F lessons due to such extraordinary times, educators can celebrate the use of technology in fostering an active online learning environment. By effectively using available online platforms, engaging lessons can be delivered while achieving meaningful interactions among the teaching team and students. There is no magic pill! We encourage educators to explore and iterate on various methods to make online learning more active in your own ways.
We appreciate the other team members including Prof. Robert Kamei, MD and Christian Chonardo for their support in shaping up a highly engaging online classroom with cinematic effects. We are grateful to NUS Libraries for their continuous support.
On 3 April 2020, Fun Man Fung took part in a webinar titled “Tools to Thrive Remotely.” The session, organized by the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN) in collaboration with European network EYCN, was part of a global conversation engaging CHEMISTS FIGHTING COVID-19. Recordings are available from https://iupac.org/chemists-fighting-covid-19-a-global-conversation/. Fun Man is part of a IUPAC project which aims to highlight the activity and increase the engagement of the Periodic Table of Younger Chemist awardees with IYCN and IUPAC (https://iupac.org/project/2020-012-2-020)
Über die Autoren
Fun Man Fung, <email@example.com>, orcid.org/0000-0003-4106-3174, Department of Chemistry, National University of Singapore.
Wei Heng Chng, NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, National University of Singapore and Department of Pharmacy, National University of Singapore.
Hui Ru Tan, NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, National University of Singapore and Department of Food Science & Technology, National University of Singapore.
Magdeline Tao Tao Ng, NUS Libraries, National University of Singapore.
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