On 31 January 2020, The Chinese University of Hong Kong announced that online teaching will be provided starting from 17 February. From 30 January to 14 February, the University organized a series of online workshops providing trainings for teachers, students and supporting staff. On 11 February, the Department of Anthropology organized an online meeting to discuss online teaching techniques. On February 17, classes of the Department resumed online as scheduled.
Two months into online teaching, how is it going for us? We talked with some teachers in the Department of Anthropology.
How long have you been teaching? Have you taught an online class before?
Dr. Andrew Kipnis: My first major teaching position started in 1993. Maybe about 25 years ago, I taught something called “television university”. The lectures were pre-recorded and on TV, and afterwards I’d run a live email chat for discussion. But that wasn’t really an online class.
Dr. Leilah Vevaina: It is my first year in the Department, and before this I taught for four years as part of my graduate training. Around 10 years ago, I taught one asynchronous online class: I sent the students readings, they wrote comments and I commented on their comments. I learned a lot, but I have to say I didn’t really enjoy the experience and found it very unsatisfying.
Dr. Gordon Mathews: This is my 26th year teaching…it has been a long time! No, I haven’t.
Dr. Venera R. Khalikova: Four independent years and two years of tutorials. No.
Dr. Wengcheong Lam: I have been teaching at CUHK for 5 years. No online teaching experience before.
Dr. Andrew Kipnis
What did you expect before online teaching started? Any surprise?
Andy: Well, I was really worried. I thought the students wouldn’t participate much and it would be very awkward, and it would be hard to arrange the whole thing. It has definitely worked much better than I thought it would.
Venera: I guess…I was excited? I’m a big fan of technology, and I always wanted to teach online classes.
Leilah: It was so sudden, and I was concerned about just feeling like I’m talking to the computer! But I thought, maybe it’s better than nothing, right. It turns out to be better than I thought it would be, and it has moments of being very satisfying.
Gordon: I am very pleasantly surprised by how well it works. In fact, there is pleasant-mindedness to both physical and online teaching, and you can’t automatically say the latter is inferior!
Dr. Venera R. Khalikova
What are some advantages of online teaching?
Venera: I actually really love Zoom. It has a lot of great functions. For example, you can record the class. For teachers, it’s a good feedback as I can see how I’m performing. For students, it’s very nice that they can replay the whole lecture when they are studying for exams.
Because I am not a Chinese speaker, it’s hard for me to remember and pronounce all the students’ names. Now, because of Zoom, I can see their names and I can address them directly. Similarly, now in tutorials students don’t have to say, “she said, he said”, which is very gendered. I am teaching a gender class, and we are trying to be gender-non-binary, and there is a student who doesn’t identify with either gender. Now people can directly refer to this student by their name.
Andy: I think the students really like to participate via the “chat” function. If you raise your hand in the classroom, it makes students feel like they’re sort of grabbing attention, but the chat function feels very relaxed for them just to put down whatever’s on their mind and it seems to be a very effective vehicle. I have particular points in the lecture when I’ll say, “okay I’m going to stop lecturing now and I’m going to go through all the questions and comments in the chat and respond to them”. It feels more interactive and dialogic that way. And, to be honest, I think currently most students are probably just stuck at home and very bored. So, they are more likely to attend classes than under most circumstances.
Gordon: I always have a problem in tutorials, when some students would never talk. Now, because I can directly see all their names and faces on the computer screen, I can easily call on them. I found out some students who didn’t talk in the physical class, are in fact quite talkative and have interesting things to say in the online class. One reason why ZOOM relatively works well is my class is unusually small this semester. Exchange students did not come due to the current situation. The small number doesn’t help us financially much, but it does make teaching a bit more intimate, so that’s another factor here.
如珍：雖然班上有七十個人，可是對每個人來講，我都像是在跟她溝通，是一對一的。例如這一堂講農民工，我會說，「今天要講民工。為什麼學中國就要講到民工，為什麼我要把這個題目放在這裡呢？感覺要跟你們交代一下。當然是因為這是我博士論文的題目啊，但是我不能直接這樣講，所以還是要解釋……」這些垃裡垃雜的。敘事的方式會變得比較personal（個人），比較不像一個public lecture（公開演講）, 有點像把我的思考講出來這樣子。
Dr. Wengcheong Lam
What is difficult about online teaching?
Wengcheong: Even though I prefer students to turn on their webcam, most of them don’t for various reasons. For instance, some of them have poor wifi–which sounds ridiculous in HK but is true when you read the newspaper. Some of them don’t have private rooms and turning on the camera will be even more distracting. I cannot even find a quiet place in my house for three hours for lectures, and I have to go to my office instead. Therefore, I don’t think it is possible to require everyone to turn on their webcam. For a big class, it will be quite hard to know the feedback since what I can see is just my screen. Also, some hands-on components, like lithic tools making technique that I am teaching this term, can not be delivered via online teaching.
Gordon: I haven’t encountered any fundamental difficulty. But, as an older professor, I need to rely on a TA’s help to manage the technical part.
Venera: I’m going to have live mid-term exams, and I’m a little worried about that. For one class, I’ll use a lock-down browser in which student can only open Blackboard. For other classes, I’m going to use Zoom and have the students turn their cameras on, so that I can see they are alone and see what they are doing. It’s still a bit tricky, but this is going to be my first experience, and I’ll learn from it.
In general, I think we’ll see this kind of online learning more and more often. If we just psychologically resist it, and keep telling ourselves that it’s hard, it’s anxious, I don’t know what to do…we’ll be stuck. I don’t want to be stuck and I want to keep trying and learning. I guess I’m the person who tries to find the good part of it.
Dr. Leilah Vevaina
What methods do you use to attract students’ attention and improve your class?
Leilah: I was worried about the graduate course on anthropology theory, because it is so long, three hours. That’s why I got a suggestion from a colleague in another department, and decided to do it like this: First I send students my PowerPoint slides with a 1-hour long audio over it before class, so they can listen to it for the lecture part. Then, I split the class into three groups, and we do discussion during class time in a seminar style. In between, students can send me emails with questions.
I have to say my prep time for the theory course has gone up a lot, as I need to do the recording and I find students podcasts, videos and interviews, all kinds of additional materials. But I just feel like, you know, especially for the MA students, they only have this one year and it’s already been so disrupted. So, I was like “I’ll just try really hard and hopefully get something good out of it.” I feel like I am putting in a lot of effort, and I appreciate that the outcome is sort of matching. I think it’s working, and I’ll see what the students feel and adjust.
Gordon: I insist that everybody turn on the camera and show their faces. Maybe this is more psychological, but I want to see the face, so that I can know that we are having a human interaction. Maybe they are using Facebook and it also looks like they are staring at the screen. Anyway, students are paying attention because they know there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll get called on!
Wengcheong: I integrate different interaction components (chat room/uReply/breakout room) in lectures. But I think when it changes to online teaching/e-learning, it‘s basically up to the students to decide whether they want to learn. Pessimistically, what we can do to keep students’ attention is very limited. However, it may not be a bad thing in the long term. My philosophy is that students should be encouraged to do whatever they want to do, and they need to learn how to balance different opportunity-costs. If they think watching a movie is more important, and if they are smart enough to figure out the teaching contents by using a 2x speed to watch the recorded lecture, then perhaps there are very limited things that we can do to keep students there.
Is there one big thing that cannot be replaced by online teaching?
Wengcheong: Definitely the face-to-face interaction and the atmosphere in that setting.
Andy: For the MA students, at least those who come from mainland China and other places to Hong Kong, I think part of what they want to pursue is a more personal relationship with the professors, and that’s sort of shut off for them. I also think that they miss the opportunity to bond in person with their classmates.
Leilah: Like 1000%! I cannot even stress it enough. Even small things like talking to your friends when you walk into the classroom or talking to the professor and all of that interaction, those are really amazing things. And it makes people feel like they’re part of a group. I feel that is really missing, like literally with the social distancing. I know we’re all supposed to do this. It’s for our own health and safety. But I really, I really, really miss that, even just like seeing a colleague in the hallway. And I’m sure the students miss it amongst each other too. A lot of people are like, “oh, is this going to be how it’s always going to be? Are we all going to switch to online?” And I don’t think so. I mean, maybe this is because how much social theory I’m reading, but we are social animals, and we want to be with each other. There is something about this.
Venera: Let me tell you something. I used to be very conservative and felt that only real, physical universities and face-to-face interaction with a professor could be beneficial, could be productive.
But I’ve been living outside Russia for more than ten years now. I know that I talk to my parents, my sister and a lot of friends who are in Russia online, and I know that intimacy and friendship and meaningful connection can also be done online. I feel that a lot of transnational migrants have that. They really realize that technology can accomplish a lot of things. Because of my personal experience, now I feel technology can also be very useful for teaching.
Of course, it’s nice to be sitting next to someone. And I believe it’s a little easier for me to teach this semester because I met my students for three weeks before lunar new year, so I kind of know them a little bit. It’s the same for my family and friends, I know them. I think being present in the same space is foundational in some sense, and you do need some balance. But technology is still doing its amazing job! If technology didn’t exist, now we would be totally devastated. I feel that we are extremely lucky and blessed with all these technologies. That’s why I feel optimistic.
Is there any interesting thing that you can share with us?
Gordon: During a tutorial, a female student’s boyfriend came in and started talking with the student. This guy walked in while the whole class was watching, and they were actually having a slight argument there, which was quite funny. I usually don’t know how my students live their life, so there’s some personal interaction here.
Andy: I think the funniest thing has probably been me. Maybe I’m funny to my students—at the start of the lecture when I’m trying to figure out how to get everything adjusted on the screen, I go, “oh wait a second”, “Oh, let me start this all over”…
Dr. Gordon Mathews
Do you think we should/can incorporate some elements of online teaching into our routine? Why or why not?
Gordon: I might be willing to go so far as to make all my tutorials on ZOOM. Tutorials do seem to work better using ZOOM because everybody has to talk, particularly MA tutorials. But I might not. What I am going to do is to ask students to really evaluate this in this year’s course evaluation. It depends on what students think.
Andy: I think I’m going to figure out more about that how students can just type in questions on their phone or their laptop while they’re listening to a lecture and then somehow I can see them on a screen.
Venera: I think the best approach is a hybrid approach, both on-line and off-line, and all of us are doing it anyway. Even answering emails is a form of online teaching. It’s not like it’s something new. Zoom for me is just another great tool to use, a natural continuation of our hybrid teaching. That’s why I didn’t feel anxious or worry about it.
Having said that, I’m probably the youngest full-time teacher in the Department. I have this advantage of age and I’m more comfortable with technology. I’m sure everybody has their different style, and I’m really grateful for having this opportunity to experiment with different technologies.
Leilah: I’ve been talking to a lot of friends who are now suddenly teaching online in the US, and resources can be very, very uneven. One of them teaches at a college in a kind of poor area, and she said only 20% of her students have their own computer. And another friend of mine who lives in Australia was saying that they have terrible internet connection, and that actually would be a big problem. Such situations really expose all those inequalities and infrastructure issues that we don’t usually think about, but really need to be realized and discussed.
The transitioning to online teaching is a coping method that we adopt when there is little choice, but it also provides new opportunities for exploration and experiment. In face of the current pandemic, at a time of danger, uncertainty and anxieties, to attend a class may not be the most pressing thing to do. Yet, to learn and to reflect may always be essential for human beings, as a species and as a community.
The University’s motivation to ensure that teaching activities continue and the quality of teaching is upheld may not be dissimilar to people’s pressure and measures to maintain the order of everyday life at the current moment. Whether the continuous operation of social mechanisms is to escape the current crisis and consolidate the existing structure, or to support each other and explore the future with prudence, humility and more openness, however, is a question for every one of us.