Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Saving Yusuf And His Incredible Nasi Lemak

Exactly one week ago, I was happily wolfing down nasi lemak for brunch. I bought it from the same stall near my workplace which I patron once or twice a week (if not of the risk of cholesterol blocking my arteries, I would happily have it every weekday).

Before I left with the take-away, I bid farewell to the seller, Yusuf (not his real name, but close enough). "See you in two weeks' time, hopefully."

A grimace flashed across Yusuf's face: "Two weeks! What can I do, brother? I have rent to pay. I have..."

His words trailed off, as he shook his head with a mixture of sorrow and frustration.

"Sorry about that, brother. I'm going to miss your nasi lemak too."

With head bowed, I walked away. I didn't know what else to say. I felt tempted to pay more than 5 ringgit which the nasi lemak cost. But what if such gesture serve to only offend him? Although I may not know Yusuf well enough personally, he comes across as an honest and diligent man proud of his craft. He never fails to get his stall up early every morning. Always polite, and patient.

Once the partial lockdown is lifted in another week (with no further extension - hopefully!), I can't wait to see Yusuf and taste his incredible nasi lemak again...

* * *

Yes, many parts of Malaysia is under CMCO (Conditional Movement Control Order), once again. This leaves many small traders like Yusuf out of work. Abandoned. Struggling to survive.

What can the government do to help them? Honestly, not much. There's only so much handouts that can be given away to the poorer folks. The national budget isn't bottomless. As long as there's no end in sight for the pandemic, resources must be saved and prudently spent.

What about us, as a community? Here's where people can really make a difference. Support local traders. Buy their wares. McDonalds and Starbucks? Please, forget about them! Franchises are able to weather the storm.

In short, we can do all our part to help out the Yusufs in the world. I'm not even upper class, nor earning much more than Yusuf. But that shouldn't stop us, whatever our financial status in life, to help each other out. Especially those close to us. Grocers and hawkers in our neighbourhood. Our village. Our community.

* * *

I hope Yusuf is coping well. I hope he'll get his stall up and running once the lockdown is over. I hope he'll remain vibrant as ever.

Yes, we all have our own personal problems to handle during this trying times. But that shouldn't stop us from looking out for one another. We can't survive on our own. Now, more than ever, we need to work together.

After all, we each have our own 'fixes'. One of mine is Yusuf's incredible nasi lemak. But there are many more Yusufs in the world that needs saving.

So look around you, people. Who are the Yusufs in your life? Please treat them nice. It's easy to forget them when the going gets tough. Now, more than ever, they need our love and support.

I miss you, Yusuf. See you soon, brother!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Be A Problem-Solver, Not A Trouble-Maker

With the sudden surge of COVID-19 cases, universities are rushing back to close their doors.

Fortunately, most of us have been prepared for the worst. We've been bracing ourselves to go full virtual. We've been investing on infrastructure, such as mics and Zoom accounts.

Now, more than ever, we need everyone on the same boat, paddling towards the same horizon. Unfortunately, there are some who still haven't gotten the memo. It's fine if they wish to stay behind and miss the boat. Problem is, they persist on shouting, waving, and basically trying to get everyone else to stop, backtrack and follow their hopeless lead.

Look, if you can't solve our problems, just be quiet and get out of way. Don't be a burden and create more trouble for the rest of us who want to move on with our work.

* * *

Last week, I was elated to know that our university was planning to subscribe some premium Zoom accounts, despite some 'experts' trumpeting the superiority of Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.

Such a move makes sense. There's no one-size-fits-all platform. Different types of learning run better on different types of platforms. It's silly to assume that there's a single killer app that can be fit for all purposes - if that were true, there wouldn't be such a competitive market of 4-5 rival apps. Ultimately, the users know best. The popularity of Zoom is a vote of confidence of its reliability.

So this week, I (user) casually inquired with a technical person (administrator) on the status of the Zoom accounts. Here's how the conversation roughly went:

User: So, how are the Zoom subscription coming along?

Administrator: X is processing the order.

User: Alright, I'll check with X then.

Administrator: By the way, have you tried Teams or Meet?

User: Yes, we have, but they don't really work for us. *turning away*

Administrator: What's missing from Teams and Meet that you need?

User: There's a few things, like the limited number of people appearing on screen.*moving further away*

Administrator: Oh, Meet has this ad-on that allows multiple screens. You should check out...

User: Oh yeah? Cool. Anyway, got to go.

This is not the first time I'm having this conversation. I've already explained about video quality, user experience, and so on. We're already getting Zoom. Why are we even having conversation again? And why should I be 'checking out' alternatives that the consensus have found unfit for our purpose?

Above all, I'm the user. Administrators should be finding out what exactly are our requirements. Ask me how my lessons are done. Better still, offer to sit in through one of my lessons. How can you tell us what tools to use when you don't even know the nature of our work? How can you suggest alternative solutions to a problem that you don't even understand?

* * *

In the end, there was very little 'trouble' caused. But that's only because I didn't bother doing the 'checking out'. I'm busy as hell. I really don't have time fixing something that isn't broken.

This specific incident is but an example of many others, of course (if the example seems rather tame, that's only because the more extreme and dramatic incidents are too controversial to share). I'm not alone in feeling annoyed and let down by these technical 'experts'. When my other colleagues ask them how such alternatives can replicate what the existing platforms are doing, their convenient excuse is: "Oh, I don't have access to your platform, so I don't know how it works". Er... how about you come over to our computer and try out for yourself? Isn't that the entire point of your job - trouble-shooting?

Ultimately, the flaw of these trouble-makers comes down to this: they want us to adopt solutions that don't solve our problem, and worse, create even more new problems. Their refusal to understand our needs is not just a matter of lacking empathy, but avoiding accountability.

Want to add positive value in your organisation? Then solve problems, and not stir troubles. And if you're not doing much to solve a problem, chances are you are part of the problem itself...

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 transparent. That we should be making firmer decisions (and not keep taking U-turns).

But believe me, most of us are feeling as 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 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 already 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 tearing their hair over e-learning.

But you know what? I see a silver lining. The pandemic has exposed the ugly flaws in our archaic educational system - flaws of our own administrative making, and not of technical difficulties. Lectures can be pre-recorded, interactive tutorials are far more critical to comprehension. Final exam is 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 achieve our learning outcomes.

Think of this moment not as the twilight of your campus life, but a bright new dawn of digital learning. Stay safe, stay positive!