Classrooms enhance value of learning

Classrooms enhance value of learning

A Thai university lecturer conducts an online lesson for students via Zoom for the first time in March last year. After 18 months, Thai students across all levels are returning to physical classrooms. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
A Thai university lecturer conducts an online lesson for students via Zoom for the first time in March last year. After 18 months, Thai students across all levels are returning to physical classrooms. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Thank goodness for Zoom and platforms like it. They have salvaged more than an entire academic year of study for our Thai university students.

While online and distance learning are not new developments, the pandemic accelerated the transition for many lecturers, a group of professionals who had been often stubbornly resistant to change of their tried and true classroom practice.

And now we are adjusting to the idea of life with the coronavirus, and we contemplate a return to campuses.

Students and teachers will soon wander apprehensively back into the university, like lost adventurers stumbling upon a lost mythical ruin, a place familiar but of another era, before the plague came. They will carefully take their seats, uncomfortable with impossibly small folding tables, perilous places for laptops. Teachers disoriented by the fully-formed unframed humans, looking not from areas of a screen, but from places in a room.

And this poses, I believe, a new burden for educators. We must work to justify this: What exactly now is the value of the classroom?

With the pandemic came a tremendous opportunity to learn the capacity of educational technology, and for many of us in higher education, it is a game changer. However, I worry that we may under-state the value of a classroom in the total education of a young person.

Over this year, I have been interviewing university students about these questions. Here are some reflections so far.

First of all, communication is inhibited in the online platform. This may seem counter-intuitive as cameras, microphones, chat boxes and emojis would not only simulate in-person interaction but even enhance it. But they don't.

A student told me that it takes a long time to work up the nerve to say something in class. In class, he said it starts with eye contact. And then a nod. It may be a lean forward; a lean back. The class murmurs at something surprising, or chuckles at a silly anecdote. And when a non-verbal rapport is established, the chances for verbal expression increase. Without physical interaction, the motivation to speak dissipates.

Zoom is a vacuum. Non-verbal cues are hard to interpret. The most fascinating idea goes without apparent surprise; the attempt at an affirming smile goes unmet; the funniest story goes unlaughed. The mute button looms excessively large, bearing disproportionate weight over the performance of the virtual classroom.

Another student spoke about the campus itself. More than a place where she goes to school, it is a place that symbolises a rite-of-passage, a transitional space from adolescence to adulthood. It is a place where young people consciously start to enact their identity.

In high school, she was "the shy one". But in college, she made the deliberate decision to shed that label and to show off her sense of humour.

Another student told me the opposite. She had been a class leader in her high school. Gregarious and outgoing. She was popular and entertaining. But on campus, she loves eating alone, something that people outside would think strange of her, that something is wrong. Going to university gives young people a clean slate.

For many of us, we look back on our college years with fondness and nostalgia. I can remember my freshman year, one day getting up the courage to meet a wholly terrifying professor, because to me, he was an intellectual giant.

I nervously approached his office door, only then to stop, turn away and retreat. I paced around, paralysed to knock. He must have perceived a nervous presence outside his door, so he opened it to my utter horror. Recognising me from his class, a just-barely-adult, he invited me in without pretence and only kindness. A small but remarkable gesture, which made him real to me, and helped me to grow up. And now as a university teacher, I try to greet my students with that same generosity of spirit.

Central to this memory is the physical act, of walking and stopping short, the nervous tremors in my hands and legs, and the relief that washed over me when he knew who I was. It is a memory rooted in the sensual, embodied in a physical space. It was the first time that I felt, in my bones, that I belonged in that world.

Speaking of this year studying from her bedroom, one student said to me: "I have made a relationship with my walls. Does that sound crazy?" She is unlikely to remember people from her classes or experience of studying a subject like she would if sharing the moment and embodying the experience.

In spite of this extraordinarily difficult time on so many fronts, and in spite of our forced distance from the classroom, I insist that this is not a lost year for our students. Far from it.

Many students report that they have become better learners. On campus, they have to rush out at the end of class because a new group is coming in. At home, they sign out, re-organise and review their notes. They have developed discipline and focus because they had to in order to not fail. These are habits that teachers have been screaming to deaf ears for time immemorial. Learning online and alone made clear their benefits. These are positive developments.

However, learning classes online made school almost singularly about academics. It is about learning content, completing tasks and passing tests. A daily to-do list on the bedroom desk.

Going to school -- to the classroom -- makes school about much more. It makes it about chance encounters that become turning points. It is about lasting impressions that, over time, become the stories we tell others about who we are and how we came to be. It makes school about an education.

Dr Matthew Robert Ferguson is a lecturer in the Humanities and Language Division of Mahidol University International College in Bangkok, Thailand.

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