“When people think of crisis, what first comes to mind is the mad scramble for survival. But we have to remember that this is also the moment where our human qualities shine, and we show compassion to each other. Kindness, and patience. Everyone is processing uncertainty and trying to figure something out to keep going. And we adapt.”

As schools and universities remain closed to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, professors continue to provide courses through digital technology and online platforms. Skultip “Jill” Sirikantraporn, a trained and licensed psychologist and professor at Fulbright University Vietnam sat with us to discuss the challenges and successes involved with bringing online her class: Identity, one of 3 social sciences stream courses.

An introductory course to the self

The stream courses provide our students with a foundation in social sciences through a multidisciplinary approach. Courses are not sequential. As Jill explains, “students should be able to take any of the distinct courses at any time, whether it’s Identity, Justice and Equality, or Global Modernity.” “Identity” draws mainly from methodologies and theoretical frameworks in sociology, psychology and anthropology. Students are first introduced to theories and concepts of the self, but will also discuss power and identity, i.e. the notion of privilege and oppression in society such as through gender, age, race, class, disability, or intersecting identities, before finally exploring modern identities, or the role of technology and virtual identities in identity formation.

The course is complemented by a research component where students will be exposed to knowledge on qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. They will get to practice conducting two qualitative research projects. First with a presentation relating an interview with someone they don’t share an identity with, then a final paper discussing another interviewee they do share an identity with. “I want them to see and grapple with confirmation bias both ways. This is also an opportunity to talk to them about the interviewing process, how to develop interview questions and how to analyze qualitative data. We also talk about ethics and acquiring consent,” explains Jill.

The purpose of the course, in short, is to address the question: how do we begin studying who we are and what shapes us? And how do we apply these concepts and theories to real-life experiences?

Driving the point home

For Jill, helping students connect theory with relevant aspects of their lives is an important concern, encouraging them to come up with questions, either to critique, contextualize or expand on the theories they see in class. “I intentionally ask them to apply what they learn to Vietnam because these theories were, as we know, developed elsewhere. Do they explain something you have seen in Vietnam? In what way? And do we need to look at different angles? We also use anthropological articles based in Vietnam, discussing modern love, the role of gender, and the concept of happy family. I want students to actively look at these theories from their own perspective.”

Dr. Jill Sirikantraporn

Students are also encouraged to explore different aspects of their identity. One of Jill’s exercises was the “non-you experiment”. Students were asked to choose something about themselves that is visibly noticeable and change it for an hour to interact with others. As Jill describes it, “you have to get out of your house and then reflect: why did you choose to change that aspect of yourself? And if you interacted with someone, how did that person react to your change? If you met a stranger, how do you think you changed your behavior?”

The assignment was given just before Fulbright Experience Day, and some of the student volunteers decided to change themselves in some dramatic way on the occasion and brought the conversation to Facebook. “It’s very rewarding to see how students connect materials to their real life,” remarks Jill.

Nguyen Minh Ha, who participated, shared her experience: “I identify as a handsome lesbian. As such, I always stick with more masculine forms, clothes, gestures and tone voice. For Fulbright Experience Day though, I decided to go with an idea I had for a long time. I wore a dress. This is highly atypical for me, and my friends thought it would be too weird so I was hesitant. But for the non-you experiment I went with it! It was interesting to notice that none of the strangers questioned my ‘new’ me, but my peers found this image appealing and shocking both. Through that experiment, I found another vivid identity living inside me. This was a really memorable day.”

Nguyen Minh Ha doing her “non-you” experiment

Online problems, people solutions

“Identity” was originally intended and designed for in-person learning. And yet, as the news came that schools should remain closed, the syllabus and course had to be re-adapted, a challenging time for all involved. “The major constraint was how fast we had to shift from in-person to online. This is different from carefully crafting a syllabus and lesson plans tailored for online courses. As the news came, we had to react right away,” recalls Jill.

Online teaching provides a space for shy individuals to participate in a less intimidating setting, as students have time to formulate their thoughts and wait for their turn. And yet, by the same reasoning, the biggest drawback was the lack of visual cues from students. “It’s harder to get a read on who is participating, who is engaged, who is confused, especially since we limit the use of cameras,” explains Jill. A sentiment shared by students, such as Le Ngoc Ky Duyen, who found the first lessons challenging: “I’m easily distracted, and shy in big groups. At the beginning I felt we lacked time to discuss with our peers and ways to raise questions to our instructor. Then Jill devised solutions to structure the class around small group discussions and written debate.”

Jill’s students must write two responses to a reading every week. First, an original response before the class. Then, by the end of the day, providing an answer to one of their peers’ posts. “This allows me to capture the pulse of their understanding and participation in the class. Students were anxious about giving an ‘uninformed’ response, but we have to encourage them to try and realize there is no perfect answer. In class students are more willing to offer their thoughts in small group discussions, and this functions very well on Zoom breakout rooms. Finally, their peer-responses form more well-formed insights. With this process, frequent written form more easily demonstrates the benefits and process of continuous, active learning, from an early ‘fresh take’ to a more thoughtful analysis,” Jill comments.

“Instead of a tool to grade student participation,” explains Le Ngoc Ky Duyen, “it actually helps me understand the reading materials. The question serves as a guideline to think through the text before group discussions help expand and enrich my point of view with other student perspectives.”

Another related disadvantage is the difficulty to foster proper human interaction. To address this, some digital tools were used to create a deeper sense of interactivity. A set of discoveries Jill intends to incorporate in future iterations of the course, beyond the online-only class. “We had to get creative with finding ways to interact. I used Facebook groups to provide questions and updates, and it creates a real time feedback, very different to emails. It gives a better sense of immediacy and bonding. Some students also introduced us to Kahoot, an online questionnaire-making game that immediately fascinated me. They design quizzes for their group to tackle in discussions and it’s very effective. By teaching others, we use a different set of cognitive processes that enhance memory. It’s also a strong motivator to verify information you build into your game and sets a wonderful tone and energy to the class. I will definitely be implementing it in future classes.”

The course’s Facebook group

For Duyen, despite the difficulties, the shift has brought its own set of discoveries as it taught her to be more self-disciplined. “By nature, virtual classes demand more effort to understand the readings, and we have to be very intentional in staying engaged in class discussions. I have learned to manage my time better, balancing between my studies and other activities, but also time for taking care of myself.”

To conclude, Jill reflects on the values that help us cope. “We faced many challenges. We had to try 3 different platforms for videoconferencing before finding Zoom that worked for our needs. And of course, it takes some time to adapt to a different way of navigating and structuring class. All the windows open on our computers can be disorienting, and there is some lag. But we can be transparent with our students. They are trained to be flexible in their thinking, to be open to being surprised by the new, the unexpected, and the uncertain. It’s encouraging to see those students supporting their peers who may be less ready, and to see the big picture from all perspectives. We are all willing to try and find solutions, experiment and learn together. This is the Fulbright spirit of co-design.”

Antoine Touch