Biology Behind Screens: Teaching Goes Online

Article by Migo Gonzalvo
Illustration by Anika Borja
Published 2020 October 6

Imagine having your monitor die right at the moment you are called to speak in a Faculty Day meeting, and in a desperate attempt to revive it, you button-smash your keyboard then suddenly hear—“Ano nangyari sayo Cris parang sinapian ka?”—as you realize that you are still in the call and have been sending gibberish to the chat. This was just one unfortunate yet laughable experience of Dr. Crisanto Lopez, the Chair of the Ateneo de Manila Biology Department, an associate professor himself, and a big reason the Biology Department has managed to adjust to the online setting—but what exactly did they have to go through to continue education in the strictly online setting? 

Based on the SOSE (School of Science and Engineering) ‘kamustahan’ hosted by Sanggu, the Bio Department has been doing relatively well. What has helped faculty members adjust their classes are the ADL (Adaptive Design Learning) modules, offered by Ateneo SALT (Science and Art of Learning Institute) and the assigned online learning coaches; wherein certain profs who were more adept with online learning were specifically trained by SALT to help those struggling. However, one major challenge due to the quarantine was the state of lab classes. As of the first semester, the only lab class being taken online by Biology and Life Sciences majors is Genetics. “Most of the exercises could be done online,” said Sir Cris. He also mentioned the possibility of inserting certain Genetics lab work into other lab classes when on-site classes are allowed. 

Meanwhile, for non-Biology majors, they decided to continue offering lab courses for NatSci. With the looming possibility of the second semester being online as well, the Department has a challenging task of deciding which classes can be taken online as ”certain competencies like pipette in Cell and Molecular Biology or aseptic technique in Microbiology” require hands-on application. To help manage the load of multiple lab classes in one semester once on-site classes are allowed, they are planning for “lab courses to be done ‘bootcamp style’ wherein certain weeks would be focused on specific lab courses”. However, for graduate students, they have to enroll in those courses by the 2nd sem even if it is online. Furthermore, thesis students had “to revise their thesis topics in such a way that they could do it online or do some meta-analysis.” Sir Cris recognizes that while they are looking forward to working in the lab, there is no other choice due to the pandemic. 

When asked about his message to those who are really struggling to adjust, he replied: “It’s not only them, it’s also some of the faculty members.” He then stressed the importance of communication: “wala namang hindi napag-uusapan…for as long as you’re open to the faculty members and we’re open to you, we can understand each other and we can better reach the objective of each of the courses.” 

On that note, here are the experiences of other profs from the Bio Department.

Old Dog Learns New Tricks

“I retired in May and I am just extended for another year.” Dr. Catherine Genevieve Lagunzad had 40 years of teaching experience behind her, yet none of them were under similar circumstances. Nonetheless, in true Ma’am Lagunzad style, she gladly took on the challenge while enjoying the preparation for this abrupt yet inexorable change. “I always believe that 90% of the success of the class is preparation.” She admitted that the ADL Courses offered by LS were helpful, although it took her some time to finish them because of other work. 

“What I missed from the lectures, I got on YouTube—I discovered how to make my course more visually pleasing.” This allowed her to stay true to her theme of colorful, engaging, and all the while informative lectures, despite the suggestion to condense her usual 1.5-hour long lectures into 30-min videos at most.  “We need not lose our personalities, we need not lose who we are as students or as teachers. We can still express who we are in an online setting.

“When I looked outside it was already daylight. I actually spent 24 hours awake. If students can see the willingness of the faculty members to go through this new age, then hopefully that would be enough to motivate them (students) to work harder. I thought at 60, old dogs can no longer learn new tricks, but I am a living example that for as long as you are willing and you open yourself and decide to have joy in something that you are doing, then learning is for any age. I could have felt dismayed or depressed, but sometimes you have to make a choice.”

The Law of Independent Assessments

As he checked his phone first thing in the morning, he saw at least 15 emails of students asking, “Sir where’s the audio?…Where are the podcasts for the class?”; he later realized that the Google Drive was accidentally deleted by a student. Fortunately, he had saved them on his phone as well. “It was good because I knew at least 15 people were going through the material.” 

This was the experience of Zomesh Nath Maini, another veteran instructor who is currently taking his Ph.D. in Biology. He had lots of apprehension at the start because of the learning curve but Sir Mesh eventually saw it as a blessing to be using Canvas, an all-in-one learning management system. However, profs are still learning, and “everything is five times longer now compared to before” as he admitted to losing sleep and getting eye strains from spending too much time on screen. 

From his experience last intersession, not getting sufficient feedback from students makes it impossible to know if he was going at the right pace. “With the speed of these quarters, it’s imperative that we check the progress of the students…however, this can’t really be done individually online.” There was also the lack of synchronous sessions and the decline of student interaction, so “the teaching aspect was lost.” The less number of synchronous sessions was unavoidable for inclusivity reasons, as for the lack of interaction, he admitted that it was understandable because everything was new and modules are posted permanently online—placing pressure on students that they would not usually experience in a face-to-face setting. Sir Mesh addressed these issues by structuring his assessments accordingly. Nevertheless, he believes that learning outcomes can still be achieved as long as there is “initiative from students, that they are really going through all of these things that you’ve taken time to prepare”, and mutual respect between both students and professors.

Waiting on the Energy Payoff Phase

“Kapit lang hanggang makabalik na tayo sa campus…it’s very important that there’s a feeling of solidarity amongst everyone— because we’re all going through this struggle together.” These were the sentiments of Ronald Allan Cruz, one of the most active members of the Bio Department teaching multiple classes, acting as an Undergraduate Student Coordinator, LS Coordinator for Teacher Formation Institute and Faculty Spiritual Formation, and the Chair of the University Research Ethics Committee, all the while taking his Ph.D. 

He also faced similar challenges with the workload and lack of interaction due to the shift to online classes. “I need energy to bounce off of my students now it’s just bouncing off of my screen.” Nonetheless, he still tried to maintain his level of interaction by making dynamic video lectures and continuing to give pop culture trivia questions that his classes were known for. He recognized that the compressed quarters and the time between the quarters seemed quite short and stressful; not to mention the announcement of 2nd sem being online, which meant extra work during Christmas break. As for his faculty work of scheduling classes, the issue of having lab classes online is something to worry about as well. His ideal situation would be a case of  ‘blended learning’ wherein students have access to labs about two to three times during the sem for lab work that cannot be done at home; however, that is still dependent on what the ADMU President’s Council says. He completely understands that safety is the priority, but admits that it is still hard to accept the current situation. Despite all this, Sir Ron believes that “Ateneo is the university that has been the most prepared and responsive”, and “we’re really fortunate to be in a university that practices cura personalis even in this online environment.”

Now more than ever, teaching and learning Biology online requires adaptability to any given situation, because without enough scientific and inclusive government intervention to resolve the Philippine COVID-19 crisis, students and faculty alike have no option but to keep education behind screens. Biology courses were not meant to be taught this way as certain competencies and applications through lab work can only be done on-site—but it is the reality of today’s situation. That being said, in order to better adapt not just in Biology classes but education as a whole, students and faculty must stay open to change, stay open with one another, and remember that this is something everyone is facing together. 

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