Most Taiwanese universities opened on March 2 for the new semester following a two-week delay. To prevent suspending classes or quarantining students because of COVID-19, the Ministry of Education has encouraged schools to adopt a policy of “suspending classes without suspending learning.”
Every university department needed to prepare online courses as a plan B to allow students to continue their education through self-studies if classes are suspended or if they are placed under home quarantine.
The advantage of online courses is that they eliminate restrictions on time and space, and they are often presented in well-designed multimedia formats. Is there a risk that online courses would replace traditional teacher-taught courses and that the university teaching scene could become a studio for filming lectures?
In Taiwan, “massive open online courses” are transliterated into Chinese as muke (慕課) or mokeshi (磨課師). These courses are available on platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, which have triggered a wave of open education at universities around the world since 2010.
Lecturers frequently use these resources as supplementary materials for their courses.
This raises questions about whether these resources and educational videos mean that students could simply watch these materials repeatedly and then ask questions or discuss the topic online. If that is the case, would teachers have fulfilled their duties?
In my own experience, there are two reasons that make it difficult to replace classroom instruction:
First, look at a different question: Can the best video recording and sound equipment replace attendance at a live symphony or concert?
Learning is more like a process of interpersonal interaction. In addition to the interaction between teacher and students, interaction among students is also an important element in promoting learning.
Through face-to-face lectures, questions and discussion, the interactive process — including eye contact, the tone or manner of speaking, and body movements — creates a sense of presence that only exists in the classroom. This also serves as a “learning catalyst” that is difficult to replace with online courses.
Second, the reason that a sense of presence is so important is that students can feel the instructor’s persistence in expertise and knowledge and how this inspires the instructor.
After all, teachers are not dealing with a group of robots, and the output of knowledge cannot be done simply by entering some commands like “because a, therefore b” and so on.
University instructors have a responsibility to harness their passion for knowledge to inspire and motivate students to learn and guide their imagination about the topic they are studying.
Universities are responsible to pass on, as well as create, knowledge, and a lot of knowledge is produced incidentally in a flash of inspiration during face-to-face interaction.
The COVID-19 outbreak hopefully will come to an early end, and people should agree that adopting online courses is only a temporary solution during the epidemic prevention period, because instruction in the lecture hall is still indispensable for universities, as it allows teachers to pass on knowledge in a more humanistic way.
Wen Tzai-hung is a professor of geography at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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