In the past five months, faculty and educational administrations have been in a state of panic. Amidst an almost-apocalyptic scenario has emerged a dire need for innovative teaching techniques, whereby higher educational institutions can continue to deliver their course programmes online.

I have been an academic as long as I have been a gamer. At University of Melbourne’s Trinity College, where I last taught, I spent time helping students visualise what they learnt and instigated creative and critical thinking skills using data visualisation techniques. Not only did this help students learn independently, and at a much faster rate, but it also clearly showed an increased level of student engagement. In other words, trying to capture a learner’s imagination was the key.

So, when Covid-19 hit and universities were closed in mid-March, I realised the need to approach this challenge in a more creative way — one that would increase student interest and engagement at the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore, where I now teach. How best could we keep in touch with our students? As a gamer, I know the role that discussion boards and forums play in creating rapport and communal connection. So my idea was to create a Google Discussion Board (GDB) for our students.

Although the primary reason for creating the discussion board was to keep in touch, help students through the trauma and keep their spirits up, the discussion board (which I named The Den) soon captured the students’ imagination and became a communal centre.

When we first began The Den, there were 25 students who joined voluntarily. They were primarily from the computer science and electrical engineering departments. They were reluctant to post their feelings. Their greatest fear was evident in the very first posts: they were afraid of

The pandemic has forced many educational institutions to shift to virtual classes. One teacher details how she used creative gaming techniques to overcome students’ boredom and lack interaction with online education

writing in English. I encouraged them by explaining that the discussion board was essentially a common room and that everybody was welcome and no one will be judged or marked for their proficiency in English. This helped many overcome their hesitance.

Some of the students commented on how easy it was to talk about their problems once they realised that they weren’t being graded. As they got more comfortable in voicing their opinions, the students began to openly comment on how monotonous and boring online classes were and certainly no more stimulating than face-to-face classes.

It became clear from the posts that what troubled students continuously was the lack of interaction and connectivity, monotony of lectures and the financial burden of extra usage of mobile data packages. Their frustration was compounded by the fact that no one was listening to their grievances. The Den seemed to them the only place where their voices were heard. Amidst the jokes and jibes, the students began talking about boredom, which comes from lack of peer interaction. They felt helplessness in the face of isolation and there was a sense of despondency. Being unable to socialise weighed heavily on them, their posts indicated. I made a mental note of all these problems and I started polling.

I conducted a poll about what changes the students would make to their degrees — and indeed their lives — if the online programmes that continued were substandard. Most wanted a change in the educational system at large but not their degrees or courses. As the polls that were posted increased, and the content became more and more interactive, the membership of The Den increased as well. By early May, 85 students were connected through The Den, and by the end of May we had 140.

But the sense of despondency among the students was still evident. By mid-April I had realised that, despite the obvious effectiveness of the GDB as a tool to promote discussions and interaction, I also needed to address the impact on student outlook. Many of the students I had taught in the past and I knew them to be creative individuals, as they had often shown a remarkable aptitude to think on their feet.

I devised a strategy that would tap into the creative strengths of these young minds, generate a feeling of camaraderie while fulfilling course requirements, so that they would get credits in case exams were forfeited.

In February, at the start of the semester, I was co-teaching a course that I had written up called Introduction to Critical Thinking: The Medici Effect. I decided to use some of the tenets from the course to create a competition that incorporated Google Discussion Boards and problem-based learning. The added element of branding it as a competition was to help fire up students’ imagination and motivation. A competition sounds more fun than a school project.

I named the competition Multiplayer Online Boards (MOBs) and launched it through ITU’s Centre of Digital Humanities (ITU) on May 1. A hundred students were divided into 10 teams. Each team of 10 was represented by students from all departments. This interdisciplinary make-up of the teams created a simulated work environment such that it would give students a taste of what is called a Real-World Experience (RWE). This simulated learning method has been practised in medical schools so that medical students are exposed to workplace scenarios and learn to cope in real-life settings. While learning to work as a team, students contributed different academic strengths and abilities to help in together successfully completing a given task to produce a four to five-minute video clip to showcase their interpretation of the given scenario.

The scenarios ranged from futuristic possibilities of marketing injectable Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Albinism in Humans and Animals. The use of the GDB was necessary as it helped the faculty not only supervise the discussions but also observe the team dynamics in a way team projects can never be supervised otherwise.

The video clips had to be submitted in 30 days. The judging panel included the Head of Department of Digital Humanities Dr Stuart Dunn from King’s College London and Rachael James, a director and film producer from the University of Melbourne.

The submissions were outstanding according to the judges. They specifically pointed to the brilliant success of students who had no expert training in video-editing or in researching on topics that were not within their curriculum.

During these unprecedented times, many instructors and academics will come across situations in which they will have to be creative and constructive. MOBs are a first as they have never been created or used anywhere in the world, but they are an example of using an amalgamation of problem-based learning methods and gaming. Done in an online format, it gave students the flexibility and the freedom to be creative with their time in quarantine, their ideas and how they conduct themselves with each other in an academic environment.

Generally, online course construction should include Problem-based Learning (especially for those in Law and Medicine), Case-based Learning (Business and Social Sciences) and include critical thinking, with ideas borrowed from real world examples. With these types of teaching methods, it is generally acceptable to include ‘micro-learning’, where students are given piecemeal information and asked to analyse it to produce answers. This helps overcome plagiarism, increases student engagement and lessens the burden on both the student and the instructor.

There are many ways in which faculty can be trained to successfully deliver online courses. The MOBs were an online project-based module but there are many simpler online methods. For example, one of the methods that I used successfully was when students were given case-based learning, supporting documents (only a few and brief ideas in a note-like format as students shy away from too condensed versions) and video clips prior to an online lecture. The online lecture became a meeting to discuss the implications of the problem-based learning and share ideas on how to tackle the information.

Finally, one of the problems that Pakistani educational institutions suffer from is a high-handed and condescending attitude towards their students. I have seen examples of many foreign-educated PhDs who seem to forget that they were themselves students once. We all have to keep reminding ourselves that our students are learners, so they are learning. We as teachers, instructors and professors are older, wiser and need to teach and guide.

Today, the meltdown of our educational systems and governing administrations is a direct result of the failures of our generation, so we need to support and encourage the next. Let’s give our students a system of online or offline education that is worthy of the fees that we charge from their parents.

The writer is Director of Centre for Digital Humanities and Director of the Disruptive Innovation Lab at ITU

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 26th, 2020