Coronavirus: when learning never (quite) stops

In Singapore, student Jolene Cheong has had to adapt to online learning and the cancellation of her clinical placement during the Covid-19 outbreak

March 20 2020
coronavirus, student, university, uncertainty, covid-19

It was last Friday before the start of clinical placements when I received the news that Singapore had raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange.

In preparation for my work-study placement, I had shifted my uniforms to the side of my closet, hoping to save a few minutes in the mornings. Notes had been compiled and categorised in print and digital formats. I had even drawn up a timetable to keep track of submissions and evaluations. I was ready, but DORSCON Orange changed everything.

“It’s cancelled,” I told my father, feeling a mixture of contempt and disbelief.

What happens now?

It was sudden, but I wasn’t completely surprised. Our professors had repeatedly emphasised the possibility of cancellation when the DORSCON level was still Yellow. The thought lingered in the backs of our minds as classes continued, growing with each new confirmed case of infection. By the time the first case of local transmission happened, cancellation had became a matter of “when” and not “if”.

Our occupational therapy programme at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) was quick to roll out its contingency plan. To make up for the lost learning opportunities caused by the postponement of our clinicals, two modules from the upcoming trimester were shifted forward, while existing modules had assignments tweaked to be deliverable, to comply with the new safety protocols in place.

By the following Monday, three days after the cancellation, a briefing was conducted to inform us of the changes and to tell us what to expect in the coming weeks.

Lectures were cancelled for classes with more than 50 students. As replacements, professors conducted lessons via online platforms such as Zoom or provided students with videos of lesson-related content. These were not innovations, as we had already done these occasionally in past trimesters.

Questions and answers were relayed to our professors through voice chat or in the messaging system. Group learning was conducted in conjunction with these online lectures via online cloud servers such as Google Drive, as well as chat systems like WhatsApp and Skype.


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For group projects, members limited physical meetings to a handful of dates, when there was a clear benefit to face-to-face discussions. We tried to schedule these on days when we were already required to be in school for lessons to keep travel to a minimum, both for convenience and overall safety. After lessons, our professors would take pictures of us for evidence of our attendance in the event that we would need to go through contact-tracing.

Initially, the whole process was a little frustrating. Adhering to safety and school-based protocols took time and effort, not only for the students but also for the professors and administrative staff. Conversations with my professors revealed the restrictions that had been imposed on their work and the arduous tasks that needed to be done to ensure that lessons continued as smoothly as possible.

The administrative team was lauded for its tireless effort through the weekend to be able to organise and release our new timetables before Monday’s briefing. I came to the realisation that this whole system had to be built on a foundation of trust – our trust in our professors and school staff to deliver the required materials and, similarly, their trust in us to use them in our learning.

It would have been easy to give up trying. After all, we are in the midst of a pandemic. And yet, there was a quiet resilience evidenced in actions, not words. Despite the initial grumblings and inconveniences, everyone adapted to the situation quickly.

Technology was used as a tool to facilitate communication across the whole of Singapore. For course mates, who were struggling to understand the materials or had to be cooped up at home because of illness or social distancing, friends were readily available to share notes and help them keep up with the rest of their classmates.

Learning would not have been possible without the support of my friends and professors. Amid a backdrop of panic and fear, knowing the generous and empathetic spirits of my friends, who pass their hand sanitisers around the table willingly, provided me with comfort.

As the DORSCON level remains at Orange, the future is uncertain. The hope is for the pandemic to slow by the next trimester, allowing us to conduct our clinical placements.

Should the level remain at Orange or the situation escalate, things will continue to change, but one thing I know is that we will manage. Singapore has done so in the past. We can do it again, together.

Read more: Coronavirus: will I be able to complete my master’s and study in the UK?

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