COVID-19: An education

by Wendy Long
20 Jun 2020

While researching this article, I scanned through the folders in my inbox for the keyword “MACC,” which stands for Master of Arts in Contemporary China, the master's degree program offered by Nanyang Technological University I enrolled for, way back in 2009.

Ironically, I came across an email dated June 29, 2009, with the subject heading “Registration of New Students - Precautionary Measures on H1N1 (Influenza

As I read through the content, it felt like it could have been an email from March 2020, since it contained familiar phrases and advice such as “travel advisory,” “stay home for seven days if you have just returned from xxx countries,” check for symptoms like “high fever, sore throat etc.,” and “social distancing.”

Wait — you mean these aren’t new phrases coined during current COVID times, and we had them during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009 too? What about H1N1? Why do I not recall much about it? After all, it was only slightly more than a decade ago and not half a century. Does that mean we’ll soon forget about these virulent COVID times as well? If we have learnt anything from history, it’s that it repeats itself, so this too shall pass and we’ll soon forget about it, however crazy it may seem now.

Perhaps the way we exchange information in current times has changed so dramatically in just over a decade that it has made the past seem even more distant than it actually is.

As we disseminate and absorb more information at a much higher frequency, news becomes stale as soon as the next headline takes center stage. That’s why I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who seems to have forgotten about H1N1. The rapid speed at which we exchange information and the advancement in social media platforms has made the world we live in even more connected than ever before — a camaraderie among mankind, ironically, even though we are not necessarily physically together.

That is one of the most significant takeaways (in my opinion) of this whole global COVID-19 virus pandemic, that the way we view the concepts of place, space and society has changed. We have learned to work from home and still be productive while not being together in a defined, designated physical space for a specific purpose (read: the office).

We can still learn from home: Distance learning has been in existence for years, but now it’s even more relevant than before. We can still communicate socially virtually and not feel as if it’s that much different.

After all, even in a group setting at a dinner party, there will be more than a handful of guests who will be glued to their handphones and not be “present,” despite being seated around the same table. So do we really need to be physically together in order to stay connected?

The No. 1 lesson, as we were taught, in being an effective communicator, is to maintain eye contact and observe body language for clues and cues on the other party’s reaction.

In the current work-from-home era, not every company is using video conferencing (supposedly for security reasons). Instead, teleconferencing, with no visual medium, is used as a platform to conduct meetings. So how does one communicate effectively, in lieu of visual cues?

The workplace as we know it will be changed significantly, post- COVID: We have to learn how to communicate effectively, virtually and remotely. It’s akin to entering a new sci-fi paradigm; augmented reality seems more real than ever.

So higher education institutes, which are predominantly targeted at members of the workforce looking to advance their careers or make a career switch, must take into account the changes happening in the workplace in order to better prepare their students for the (brighter) future that they are hoping for, with the higher education that they seek, as a promise of better things to come.

For a start, even institutes have to rethink the concept of space. If employees are going to work from home more often, then students will likewise be conducting more distance learning. If home-based learning relies more on self-discipline to complete homework and revision independently, will that diminish the role of educators? If information is readily available virtually for anyone to access, what does one really learn from attending classes, even virtual ones?

Technology has already replaced most human jobs and created immense redundancy in the workforce. As we move towards a more virtual society, not only will physical space be redundant, but skill sets themselves will be insufficient, since robots can do many jobs better anyway.

What remains important and irreplaceable is the human mind, the independent thoughts and innate instincts, the ability to feel emotions and make a judgement call, that is not based on a preprogrammed calculated reaction. That “human element” is the survival skill that we need to remain indispensable. Higher education is about more than just imparting knowledge; it’s about gaining wisdom.