Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to teach management subjects again at De La Salle University. Half a year later, I received a similar offer from De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. Armed with an adequate internet connection, I accepted both offers on the condition that everything would be done purely online. I made clear that as soon as face-to-face instruction would be required, I would stop teaching again. I was not yet willing to deal with the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and, as was true when I stopped teaching back in 2018, I was no longer willing to deal with the transportation-related costs. I was fortunate to have been given the chance to teach again under the more workable conditions of the fully online set-up, but the challenges that came with it became evident right away.
One of the challenges that stood out was how difficult it was to get to know my students individually. I believe my reduced ability to individualize my teaching style and to personalize interactional and motivational approaches significantly affected my effectiveness as a learning facilitator. It is quite difficult to know a person, much more so to know how to effectively interact with and motivate a student, based solely on how the person uses chat boxes. This is often a limitation that teachers need to work with because chat boxes are what many students, including those who claim to have internet connection problems, end up using as their primary medium for class participation.
This brings us to the next challenge: the tedious process of reading through these chat boxes. I have had class discussions where I was only able to read answers to questions half an hour after they had been asked. This was not due to a lack of attention to the chat box. If anything, I probably paid too much attention to it. It often happened that several answers and comments needed to be addressed first, and it took that much time to get through all the implications and relevant side discussions that each chat message brought forth. Sometimes, I felt like I was talking to myself for hours when no other voice was willing to be heard. I tried disallowing chat box participation, but ended up allowing it again after the deafening silence that followed. Knowing that the sessions are recorded and that their classmates would eventually have access to their sound bites, many students shy away from using their mics. In too many instances, I asked a question that I would never ask in a face-to-face set-up: “Are you there?”
Another significant challenge that comes with the fully online set-up is the difficulty of detecting whether a student is physically and mentally present or not. Early on, I conceded that I simply could not confirm their presence in synchronous sessions. It was too easy for students to park their names on online meetings while doing other things. Even when they failed to respond when called upon, many plausible excuses were ready for their choosing. Despite this, students could choose to pay attention while watching the recording instead. In contrast, the same cannot be said about scatterbrained students in face-to-face set-ups who nod at everything the teacher says without listening to a single word.
Also, there are several subjects for which there is no adequate substitute for experiential learning and face-to-face interaction. Fortunately, my subjects were not of the type that suffered from the lack of such opportunities. Things worked out quite well despite everything, and I believe that fully online classes should continue to be provided to students and teachers who prefer them.
Last month, I finally attended my first in-person academic activity of this decade when our department had an in-person meeting. A week later, I finally met one of my pandemic students in person. However, he just happened to be a neighbor who joined our basketball session that day. It seems crazy to think that it took two years to meet a single student out of the hundreds that I had taught online. Such is the world that we live in now.
As my current teaching stint comes to an end, I would like to thank everyone who made these wonderful opportunities possible. Also, best of health and luck to all face-to-face teachers in all your future endeavors!
Engr. Rafael Gerardo S. Tensuan is a lecturer at the Department of Management and Organization of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University.