Ordinarily, music teachers must sit with their students, listening to tell whether they are striking the right notes or singing the right harmonies, but when schools were ordered closed, Noelle Sempele had a way out.
The international school where she teaches had prepared the teachers and students for when it would no longer be possible to meet physically and asked them to plan to use Google Classroom.
For the last two weeks of the term that just ended, the students would log into the music class virtually.
Students have email addresses and the teacher would start by inviting them into a class via email, which she uses for follow-up and for the students to submit their work.
“The classes are as originally set in the timetable so the students know when they are supposed to log in for the class,” says Noelle.
At the appointed hour for the class, everyone logs in, the teacher greets the students and they have to use the register to mark themselves present for the class.
“With music, it’s hard to teach online so I was mostly teaching music theory and composition,” says Noelle.
Even for these, she could only give assignments that would need the students to research online.
“You have to be quite creative,” Noelle says. “For composition, I challenged the students to write music for a video game. They were very excited about it.”
Performances were out of the question as the class could not meet and Noelle is still wracking her brain on how that can be accomplished.
Noelle finds virtual classes are like normal classes: the quiet students remain quiet, the noisy ones will bring irrelevant topics into the forum discussions and she will have to delete their posts and issue a warning, and sometimes she will need to email a student directly in the same way she will ask them to stay behind after class.
For her, the disadvantage is in sometimes having so many questions from the class that she can’t handle at the same time, something she handles easily in the physical classes.
“Staying online for so long is draining,” she says, and sometimes the vagaries of unreliable power get to her. “Sometimes the power goes off and you have to miss the class.”
She is sometimes happy, though, that she does not have to handle the noise that you’d expect of a music class and that with a good internet connection, she was able to remain in touch with her students.
The experience has been different for Godfrey Mwaura and his colleagues in a Masters class at the University of Nairobi.
When the switch to online classes happened, he says, only 23 of the 60 students in their class could attend, and for a variety of reasons: some were rushing home after work and could not log in on time, others did not have the skills needed and others were hamstrung by the lack of an internet connection.
The administration then decided to push the classes from 5.30 pm to 7.30 pm to allow everyone enough time to get home and attend class.
Lecturers have also had to adjust, some with more challenges than others.
One of Mwaura’s lecturers was averse to technology, preferring to have his notes on paper, even as others used PowerPoint presentations, and it is evident that virtual classes have been a challenge.
He did not have classes for three weeks and when he eventually did, one of the students had prepared the presentation for him and was showing it as the lecturer talked to the class.
Things settled when the start time was pushed to 7.30 pm, and assignments and Continuous Assessment Tests have been taken without much trouble.
Group discussions still happen on WhatsApp and group work gets done on Google Docs, which allows co-creation and online editing.
Presentations are made on the Google Hangouts during class time and when a student is presenting and goes offline for some reason, a member of the group takes over. It is hard to make a presentation when you are using your phone.
For Godfrey, an architect who often works from home, relying on technology to stay in touch with his clients and reach his colleagues, taking classes from home was not troublesome.
“There is no traffic, I am able to sit and have coffee as I take my lessons and doing it online means my programme will not delay and I can graduate on time as originally scheduled,” he says.
Still, he feels physical classes are necessary. Often the lecturer does not have the time to give enough illustrations and no matter the level of interaction, students struggle to concentrate when a class goes beyond one hour.
“It’s not as elaborate as you’d want it to be. The class is less immersive and shorter than the normal class,” said Godfrey.
An article on online teaching published by Harvard encourages teachers and instructors to think about which of your classroom-teaching strategies translate well to the remote setting, which ones do not, and what new approaches one might incorporate.
The article also encourages instructors to develop and apply ground rules for remote teaching and gives the following example;
“Our class will meet through the Zoom online conference system. We will adopt the same rules and norms as in a physical classroom (take notes; participate by asking and answering questions; wear classroom-ready clothing). For everyone’s benefit, join the course in a quiet place. Turn on your video. Mute your microphone unless you are speaking. Close browser tabs not required for participating in class. This form of learning will be somewhat new to all of us, and success will depend on the same commitment we all bring to the physical classroom.”
As they assess teaching and learning virtually, Noelle and Godfrey have had time to reflect.
“It’s a good experience but it’s also quite tough,” says Noelle. “You feel you miss your students. They drive you crazy sometimes but you miss them.”
Godfrey has steeled himself for a longer period of having to do this, although he worries that they might not get to sit examinations in May as scheduled.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we are studying using this method until coursework is done. I feel like I’m being guided and the knowledge will come along the way,” he concludes.