Teaching during COVID-19

Ben Charoenwong
Age of Awareness
Published in
5 min readMar 29, 2020

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Singapore went into DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) Orange on February 6, 2020 (it has still remained there as of March 30, 2020), back before the official COVID-19 name when it was still the “Wuhan virus”. The DORSCON system in Singapore was introduced after SARS, and ranges from green to red, corresponding with mild disease to severe disease and spreading wildly. Green corresponds to minimal disruption while red corresponds to major disruptions, such as school closures, working from home mandates, and significant deaths. For faculty members, going from yellow to orange signaled two things: both expected changes in school policy as well as increased uncertainty of policies going forward. So, we needed to come up with different ways to deliver class content.

I am an assistant professor of finance at the NUS Business School in Singapore, teaching both undergraduate and masters’ students where each section is around 40 students each. My undergrad class typically had about 30% exchange students from all around the world and my masters class comprise mostly international students. So, I needed to find a method that could deliver class material even if students suddenly returned home, have a time difference, have unreliable internet, and still allow students to collaborate for group assignments.

In turbulent times, the most important thing is to maintain flexibility. Unfortunately, the ability to be flexible across medium also depends on how well-versed faculty members are with different options. The tradeoff lies in balancing the fixed costs associating with learning new techniques, subsequent marginal costs to run a particular set up, and the length of time to use that method.

Because the policies in Singapore changed gradually rather than all at once in the United States, I gradually adopted more tech-dependent methods. So, I decided to share some of my experiences using these different options, and list the fixed costs, marginal costs, and benefits for each method.

I teach using a lecture approach with a slide deck, use online polls using PollEverywhere, and typically go into more detail on the material by working on a whiteboard. The material that I go over on the whiteboard is heavily dependent on student feedback and facial expressions. So, I wanted some method that allowed for live online interaction. I considered three ways to record and make lectures available online, all of which may be combined with other post-class interaction methods like online forums, wikis, or online assignments. Some of these options may not be viable for teaching a case-based class, which fundamentally requires discussion and interaction among multiple students. I tried combinations of the following:

1. Recording lectures in a lecture room and having students watch that
Fixed Cost: None
Marginal Cost: None
Student Interaction: No or minimal

2. Recording lectures in my office and posting to have students to watch
Fixed Cost: Small
Marginal Cost: None
Student Interaction: No or minimal

3. Do classes live online through Zoom
Fixed Costs: Medium to do basic set up, High for sophisticated setups
Marginal Cost: Medium
Student Interaction: High

Since I typically teach using a slide deck and also use the whiteboard, I naturally gravitated towards (1). The nice thing is it still gets what I do on the board, has no fixed costs, and I can still have a small audience in class for those students who wanted to show up. Up until last week (March 25, 2020), we could still hold classes with 50 or fewer students in person, with the social distancing of 1 meter between each student. Starting this week (March 30, 2020), that limit decreases to 25 students. So at this time, most people in NUS would have gone online.

After a couple of lectures, I decided to save the setup cost on my end and reduce my time costs by recording lectures directly in my office (2). I got a decent microphone (worth getting a decent mic to avoid those popping sounds) off Amazon. If there are no students at all (per mandate based on some other schools), then I may consider (2) + some live zoom discussions.

Finally, once I was comfortable with recording things offline on Zoom, I moved to live online classes through Zoom (3), which I think has the highest risk one since a delay in getting things up and running would impose a cost on the entire class and put time pressure. If you decide to conduct live online classes live via Zoom (actually you can do this and also choose whether to record the meeting or webinar), then passing along the “speaking totem” between you and students would be key. I would recommend you to ask students to use the “Hand Raise” feature if they have questions. This way, you can call on students and let them speak seamlessly with no conflicting speakers. I also like questions being typed into the chat since that doesn’t disrupt the flow and does not burden students with needing a mic that works (and background noise, etc). So, you can then read the question verbally (and re-phrase it how you see fit) for the recording and then answer it.

Best Options

I think the best option to deliver the materials depends on whether both the lecturer and students have good internet bandwidth. For my class, several students flew home to rural areas in Europe or developing Asia. Even in Singapore, my home internet subscription of 1 GBPS cuts out once in a while, especially if there are more than 20 attendees, let alone having all the attendees show their video as well. So, we can’t take the internet bandwidth for granted! (Even early on, NUS reached their Zoom bandwidth cap, but this has since been alleviated.)

I think the unconstrained best option, given the current circumstances, is for small classes to do a live Zoom session with all participants sharing their screens. For this, my optimal set up for the lecturer involves multiple screens:

1. Presentation material which is shared

2. Zoom chat/Q&A

3. Student faces (if applicable)

4. PollEverywhere

I achieve this by segmenting my large monitor into subsections.

For large classes, I would use a Zoom Webinar instead where students are attendees. Unfortunately, this means students cannot share video, but you can control whether they can speak up to ask questions, or whether to take questions in written form using the Q&A feature.

If it is a large class & lecture-based, I would recommend recording some lectures before class, having the students watch it, and then do a shorter live discussion during class time instead (2). This way, students can participate and you aren’t under time pressure to cover the material. This is equivalent to flipping the classroom.

For all Zoom options, recording the video is optional. Recordings may be done by the host (faculty member) or the students individually as well. This can be permitted in the Zoom meeting setting.

Additional tips if you plan to run a live Zoom session:

  • If you are the host, I would recommend muting people upon entry so you don’t get any accidental background noise from the participants.
  • I would also recommend preventing participation from screen sharing to maintain order.
  • You can also choose to record the zoom session, and if so, can also decide whether to allow participants to do so as well.
  • Beware of microphone sensitivity. Worth recording a short clip to test it out first, since sound quality and the “P”s and “S”s may sound painful to the ear. Use a pop filter if you can get your hands on one.

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Ben Charoenwong
Age of Awareness

Assistant Professor of Finance at the National University of Singapore. Michigan and Chicago alum. I write random musings and complain about business media.