25 November 2020

Time in the new world

By Christina Yin

It’s past midnight and the steady tapping of my keyboard is interrupted only by the sound of a glass tinkling – a WhatsApp notification. The submission deadline is at 12 noon and students are seeking answers to questions they should have asked weeks ago or pleading for extensions. It’s a typical night – or should I say, early morning – in the life of a lecturer teaching online.

Despite rules of WhatsApp etiquette spelled out at the start of the semester, students do forget that 9:00 p.m. is the latest they should message me. This did happen when we were still having face-to-face classes on campus, but now that we are teaching entirely online, the interruptions are more frequent. Emails and messages via Canvas (our online learning system) Inbox at odd hours are common. It has become the norm that students are alert and at work in the quiet hours of the night and early morning.

This is not just common for students. Many educators are now up at all hours, glued to their computer screens, preparing lessons, recording videos and marking. Daylight hours are reserved for live online classes via Microsoft Teams or other platforms and for life in homes necessarily isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is much to learn and multiple tasks to juggle as we navigate the many conflicting paths before us. The call of duty at home – elderly parents isolated away from us or living with us in our homes, children of different ages needing our attention and guidance as they struggle with online learning themselves, a spouse adapting work to virtual mode, or learning to live alone far from our loved ones and isolated from daily interactions with colleagues and students –  and the call of duty at work.

Our waking hours have expanded to cope with these competing needs. While in the past, we were more easily able to compartmentalise the different parts of our lives, there is now an overlap that can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s been eight months since the first Movement Control Order and our learning curve has been steep. However, it’s not just navigating and using these tools effectively that’s been the challenge. We also need to learn and understand what our students are going through and to help them achieve their best in this brave new world.

In pre-pandemic days, teaching a first-semester Foundation unit had its challenges because students were embarking on university life after a highly structured life at school, home and play. We were teaching Foundation students who were experiencing greater freedom than they had before, but also, greater responsibility to make important choices and decisions for themselves. Some coped with this admirably, but others floundered and struggled. Today, we see these reactions magnified by the need for students to adapt to a completely online learning system.

In the Foundation unit I teach, Innovation and Change, we run a weekly online discussion forum in which students are required to post their views on a variety of topics. Halfway through our semester, in Week 7, students are asked to consider online learning replacing the traditional classroom. In the two semesters we’ve taught online since the start of the pandemic, I have been surprised that many students take the stand that traditional classroom education should be replaced with online learning. A main reason given is the flexibility that online learning provides. Many students deem being able to manage the timing of their lectures, tutorials and group work to be more important than having face-to-face interactions with their peers and lecturers.

Thus, it seems that the 24 hours we have in each day looms before us as a clock expanded. The traditional structure of our pre-pandemic lives had already been cracking with the onset of digital technology that enabled us to work at all hours, communicating with our colleagues and striking deals with business partners anywhere in the world. The pandemic has now broken down that façade of the in-office work day and family- or personal-time day.

In Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, Molly Weasley’s clock had nine hands that showed the location or condition of each member of her family ranging from school, work, travelling, lost, hospital prison to mortal peril. Perhaps our traditional clocks with their twelve hour hands need to be supplemented with additional clocks within the clock face showing the smorgasbord of options: school, family time, meals, webinars, virtual and in-person events, conference calls, exercise, cooking, laundry, the list is endless.

So, as my phone tinkles again (a student is asking about the online discussion post due in eleven hours’ time), a rippling chord sounds in my earphones; Outlook is telling me I have an email just arrived. It’s closing in on one a.m. and I’m wondering if now’s the best time to sneak in a 5-minute yoga break or a 17-minute power yoga break with my favourite YouTube yoga instructor. I think I’ll go with the 5-minute break. I don’t want a boggart to show itself – the shape shifting entity from the Wizarding World that takes the form of our worst fear. My imaginary boggart takes the form of my work or PhD supervisor telling me that I haven’t completed my tasks. I’m ready with my mental wand though, ready to say the Riddikulus charm to dispel the boggart and to carry on bravely in this new world as we all must.

Christina Yin is a senior lecturer in the School of Foundation Studies at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at cyin@swinburne.edu.my.