Thursday, October 1, 2020

Three Ways To Keep Calm and Embrace Virtual Learning

Welcome back to the new semester!

We're not out of the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, life must go on. Classes have to restart. It's virtual learning for the rest of the year (or longer).

Lost? Sad? Angry?

Look, I know how you feel about us teachers. You feel let down. That we could've done better. That we should be more upfront and transparent. That we should be making decisions (and not making things up as we go along and taking U-turns).

But believe me, most of us are feeling lost as you are. There are SOPs from above to follow. We don't call all the shots. Our hands are tied. We're left in the dark as much as you are. We're really doing the best that we can.

The coming semester is going to be rough. So instead of venting on social media and spamming memes to crucify the university, please direct your energies more positively...

* * *

Suggest solutions, not just identify problems - It's easy to criticise. But most teachers are old - and not tech-savvy. So don't just point out what's broken about virtual learning, kids! Tell us how to fix it! Know a better video platform? Please, do recommend. For myself, I'm not shy to admit that I have trouble multi-tasking (and my laptop is kinda shitty). So I'll get a student to host the call, share the link to the rest, move the presentation slides, and so on. Don't be shy to volunteer. We're in this together now. Let's forge a symbiotic relationship. As teachers, we're always open to ideas of how we can improve our methods.

Think for everyone, not just yourself - Look, everyone is affected by the pandemic, in many different ways (e.g. Internet connectivity, device compatability, etc). When proposing solutions, be sure that they're accessible for every other student. Teachers have limitations, too. Don't make outlandish proposals that are unduly unburdensome (e.g. 10 tests to replace 1 final exam). Personally, I find multiple-choice test really effective (yes, even for law) - saves time in marking, and can truly test the depth of one's knowledge by a purely objective standard. Virtual learning should be seamless for both teachers and students.

Simplify, not complicate - Now's really the best time to streamline on what's necessary, and what's not. Recently, at a meeting, someone was enthusing about the perks of software X (e.g. can upload files, track attendance for large lectures, etc). In my mind: "Eh? Priority is video quality. Everything else is secondary." Uploading files - there's always an existing system for this purpose, why duplicate work? Attendance - lectures can be recorded (which reduces scheduling conflict and gives students more flexibility to enrol into different subjects since lectures are no longer fixed to a time slot). In short, the pandemic offers a once-in-a-lifetime to transition into a more wholesome learning environment.

* * *

Most people - students and teachers alike - are naturally aggrieved and tearing their hair over this unfortunate health crisis.

But you know what? I see a silver lining. The pandemic has revealed the flaws in our archaic educatonal system - flaws of our own making, not the technical difficulties of virtual learning. Lectures can be pre-recorded, interactive tutorials are far more critical to comprehension. Final exams are overrated, continuous assessment is more efficient.

So don't despair! I can't speak for every teacher, of course. Personally, I feel truly excited about the coming semester. Yes, we're losing out on a few indispensable parts of face-to-face learning. But by and large, we can find alternative - if not even better - paths to reach our learning outcomes.

Think of this moment not as the twilight of your campus life, but a bright new dawn of modern education as a whole. Stay safe, and stay positive!

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Past Is Gone, The Future Is Bright

A cloud of uncertainty looms ahead. We don't quite know what next month (or even next week) looks like. Plans become redundant as soon you prepare them.

For me, the university semester is about to restart in a few weeks, but no one really knows whether to what extent classes will be conducted virtually or live.

Many people are still stuck with 'temporary' pay-cuts with no clear deadline when their original pay-checks will return

This leaves us clinging onto the desperate hope that things will get better in no time, so we just have to buckle down, take a break, and wait for the storm to pass. That's natural, but naive.

The cold hard reality is that some things will be never be the same again. The sooner you let go of the past, the faster you'll get adapt to the new future.

* * *

I'll speak about education, because that's where I'm most familiar with. But a lot of things that I say should resonate to many of you, wherever you are. I'm just running through examples anyway, and not launching into a critical analysis of the educational system.

First, let's start with the obvious. Students in rural towns have bad Internet connectivity. Virtual classes just aren't as effective as the real thing. Continuous assessment will dilute the value of grades.

If you're just hanging on the thin thread that's given to you, you'll definitely fall behind. You will graduate into a depressed job market. Got a First-Class? Sorry, if I'm in the shoes of an employer, I will treat any applicant from your cohort with a quantum of doubt. It's not you, it's just the terrible hand you're dealt. The pandemic has robbed you of a proper education. Sucks to be you, but you can't count on employers drowning in their own 101 problems to give you a free pass.

Similarly, for those already in employment, it's matter of swim or sink. There's less work coming in, hence less chance to prove yourself. Competition between co-workers will only be more cut-throat. It's harder to be 'visible' when you're virtual.

* * *

So are we doomed to mediocrity? Of course not!

When life gets tough, that's when you need to toughen up even more. Not shrink like a daisy.

Take up internships. Indulge in more extra-curricular activities. Be a research assistant.

Look out for more opportunities! Do something more! Explore!

Sadly, that's not what I'm seeing in most students. Instead, the sense I get is defeat. Despair. Doom.

Look, I totally understand that most internships and extra-curricular activities have also gone 'virtual' - and they're not as good as the 'real' thing. But so what? What other better alternatives are there? You can't wait out a storm that shows no sign of stopping. What if the pandemic continues for 2-3 more years? Are you going to continue hibernating at home?

* * *

The good news is that not all students are shrinking daisies.

Some brave ones are truly forging forward to unchartered territories with a great sense of adventurism. Things don't always go well for them, of course. But even if they're stumbling in the dark, they're still moving forward and getting ahead of lazy buggers hiding in their basement.

Ultimately, fortune favours the brave. You can't get lucky if you don't even roll the dice. You can't complain about bad luck if you never even try to take charge of your destiny.

There's a storm coming, people. The sooner you pack up and run for the hills, the better chance you'll have in escaping into the different but brighter future that lies ahead.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Work From Home, Work Is Home

I'm a big, BIG, fan of working from home (WFH).

Anyone who's been following my writings (not saying that there ane any) knows I've been advocating WFH policies for the longest time - way before COVID-19 struck and forced many of us to join the WFH bandwagon.

This week has been bad, but also good. Bad because the whole city had a sudden severe shortage of water till our tanks have run empty and we're scrambling to call our friends to find a place to shower. Good because my work place had good sense to allow us to WFH once their tanks went dry too.

I've been practising WFH for the longest time ever. Especially during my good 'ol days at an MNC, and also during my practice days (when I was senior enough to manage my own files and time). I would waltz into office pass 9 in the morning, and sometimes leave before 4 in the afternoon. Lucky me, right? Well, that's only the good side of WFH...

Work from bed

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

* * *

Ultimately, WFH is a trade-off.

Anyone who's been following my writings (not saying that there are anyone) knows I've been advocating WFH policies for the longest time - way before COVID-19 struck and forced most of us to join the WFH bandwagon.

You exchange flexibility in working hours for irregularity in working tasks. When your boss allows you to take off from office anytime you please, he expects you to be on call pretty much 24/7.

To give you a picture, here's a totally fictional scene:

Boss: Heading off already?

Me: Yep, quick nap, then I'll continue working on the Stoom file.

Boss: Cool, catch you later on Zoom. Call in 15 minutes earlier to fill me in details?

Me: Sure, 945pm then!

Unfortunately, most other people in office don't know about the Zoom call or what happens when I go home (trust me, there's nothing exciting, just me staring at a computer screen). So they just assume I'm skiving or partying with my bros or something. To them, I'm a lazy bugger. Truth be told, my life is even more miserable than theirs. Ah, the irony...

* * *

So why do I put with this torture? It's simple. It's the best way to work. Not just for me, but for everyone.
Imagine the time is 11.45am. Lunchtime is fixed - 12pm to 1pm (non-negotiable). Your brain is on fire. You're feverishly typing away. Do you stop for lunch? Of course not. That will just break your momentum - and maybe even keep your boss waiting (he has to leave by 3pm - that's why he's the boss).

Obviously, any functional workplace shouldn't be fixing hours. It's not in their interest when their staff just watches the clock. That's when work gets stalled, and people can't get into the 'zone'.

Apply the same analogy to clock-in/clock-out hours, and weekday/weekend dividing lines. The best work output comes from people who aren't constrained by arbitrary timings. And that's a fact.

Did I just break the myth that WFH allows us to work less hours? Yes, that's the cold hard truth.

Does that mean anti-WFH people are the lazy buggers? Yes, totally!

Should more workplaces switch to WFH? Yes, but you really need to find like-minded people who have a strong sense of purpose and passion.

* * *

Indeed, it's harder to WFH than to work fixed hours.

Working from 9 to 5 just requires you to be disciplined between, yes, 9 to 5. Be on time, be visible - that's all you have to do.

WFH is harder because your performance is not measured by your input, but output. No marks for work 'Effort', but all about work 'Product'. It's not an obligation of conduct, but of result.

That's how I run my ship, if I'm ever captain. Here's a task, get back to me by this deadline. That's all. I don't care what time you start, how many hours you burn. All I care about is a job well done. Finished earlier? Well done, you've earned yourself a break!

Now, that's called 'work'. Clock in 9 to 5 no matter how late you had to work last night on an urgent project? That's called 'slavery'.

And above all, WFH epitomises the highest level of human autonomy, and social trust. Only mediocre people need a specific time and place to work. The best of us are constantly working, no matter where and no matter when.

Work is home, and home is work. And that's okay, because we're doing the work we love and call home.