As the science teacher for the Physician Assistant training program at Earth Mission Asia (EMA), I have been tackling the challenges of online teaching in a unique cross-cultural context alongside my fellow teachers.
Normally, the first year of our 5-year training program takes place here in Northern Thailand. However, the social-political conflict in Myanmar is preventing our Karen students from crossing the border. We could have thrown the towel in and told our students to wait another year.
Then, in April, we decided as a team to begin teaching our first-year students over video.
Here is my experience of online teaching to a group of students in the jungles of Myanmar so far. . .
To better understand what the experience is like, let me give you some context. The students are located in EMA's remote clinic. This means that they are deep in the jungle in a location where healthcare services are desperately needed.
The students have to put up satellites each morning to access the internet. The reason they cannot keep the satellites up permanently is to avoid being spotted. There have been days in recent months where planes were flying overhead and dropping bombs. There is only enough bandwidth to support one internet user at a time. If more people connect to the internet at the clinic, it will slow everyone down significantly. During online classes, the bandwidth is just enough to support video. The students gather around a computer connected to a monitor.
Sometimes I see the students taking photos of the monitor during class. The students’ faces are blurry, and there is significant lag. Every day the lag time seems to be different. Some days I have to wait three seconds before the students hear what I said. Other days the lag time is 5 or 10 seconds.
My teaching style is active, and often I have the students engaged in an activity or game. I stand up and show them what I want them to do and need to make sure the camera is adjusted. I say “to your left, my right” or “your right, my left” enough times that it is confusing. I have found that trial and error work best here until they get what I was expecting.
The students must tell me who won the game since I can’t always tell who it is. When the students draw something on paper, they present it to me by putting the image really close to the camera until I say it’s in focus enough to see. One time I had the students play musical chairs to warm up, and they kept mistaking the lag for me stopping the music. I found the students falling over each other and chairs being knocked down when the music was still playing. This gave the eliminated students another chance at glory while the others a false sense of security.
When I began teaching, I tried to show them videos. I asked them if they could see the video if I share my screen. It was too choppy and low quality for them to watch it. Then I tried to download a video before class and then show it to them. It still had the same troubles as before. The only other solution would be to send the videos to the teaching assistant and have her download it on their end. However, the only other times the satellite was up would be when other classes were in session. I rely heavily on videos in all my classes and now must adjust.
I also rely heavily on whiteboards. This is where my laptop, with its touch screen and compatible pen, come in handy. I can share a virtual whiteboard and use my pen to write directly on my screen.
The following mishaps have occurred at one point in time:
- Another meeting was scheduled during the science class slot.
- I mistakenly taught science during the math class slot.
- Another in-person class on surgery was happening in the same room at the same time.
- Rain was pouring so hard that we could not hear each other.
- The laptop battery died on their end.
- The call dropped on their end.
- The call dropped on my end.
- They froze, and then when it caught up, they were all moving at superspeed.
- My children barged into my office and interrupted class.
- My dogs wouldn’t stop barking loudly because they found a snake in my yard.
After all these hiccups and challenges, we all still log on and continue to do our best, given the circumstances. Nothing is the same during this virtual experience for either side. However, there is one constant whether we meet in person or virtually: the students’ joy and motivation to learn so that they can help their people.
Their smiling blurry faces and delayed laughs keep me motivated to make the best of this situation. I hope one day that I can jump out of the monitor and visit them in the flesh. Until then, the virtual classroom it is. During these unique pandemic times, many of you around the world are learning how to use new online tools and virtual meeting techniques. Thank you for sharing my experience and catching a glimpse into how online learning has impacted Earth Mission Asia.
About the Author: Sheldon and his wife joined IDEAS in 2014. They work with Earth Mission Asia, an IDEAS partner project that trains rural villagers in southeast Asia to become physician assistants. Sheldon is the Year 1 Curriculum Coordinator and one of the Year 1 teachers who primarily teaches the Sciences. He has a Master's in Public Health and has lived in southeast Asia since 2015. Enjoy other blogs by Sheldon, such as "How IDEAS Cultivates Professional Development."