Ambeth Ocampo shares, “One of my dreams is to have a truly magisterial (i.e. supersized class) as they do abroad, where I can lecture to 300.

Cura Personalis Online?
A Teacher’s Perspective

By Ambeth R. Ocampo, Department of History

Photos courtesy of Ambeth Ocampo Facebook Fan Page

Over three decades of classroom teaching did not prepare me for the rush to online education following the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike many of my colleagues who had the luxury of time, I had barely a month to learn Canvas (the chosen Learning Management System of the Ateneo de Manila University) before I jumped into the Intersession with over 100 students. I did not even have the time to complain. Looking back on the experience, I would say that online teaching was not as bad or as difficult as I thought. It helped that I know the course content like the back of my hand, but navigating a new platform raised me to the level of my incompetence.

I have been teaching Hi165 “Rizal and the emergence of the Filipino nation” to juniors and seniors since 1998. It was recently reworked in line with K-to-12 reforms into a freshman class focused on Philippine History through Primary Sources. Unlike my previous students who took the course in their junior year and had Philippine history in grade school and high school (plus a kiddie version of the Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo in Pilipino class), my current students are freshmen whose last and only contact with Philippine History was probably in Grade 5.

All of us were learning Canvas on the go beset by the challenges of working from home. Without the structure of a physical classroom, students can be in pajamas the whole day. They have more enjoyable options to studying such as sleeping, eating, and binge-watching, or just chatting with family or doing chores. Studying from home means they miss out on the resources of the Rizal Library and learning from required field trips to the National Museum and Intramuros that can be life-changing. Standing in front of Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” is not the same as looking at it on a smartphone screen. While the Intramuros Administration has done an admirable job in providing online tours and recorded webinars to supplement Philippine History courses, these can never replace the memories that come with walking through Intramuros with classmates and friends.

We had to adapt. Absences are not counted against a student unlike before when there was a limit to absences and tardiness. Late assignments are now accepted without question. Having problems with internet service have replaced the former “our dog ate my term paper” excuse. Online education, in principle, is a great leveler. But since we do not have the infrastructure to make universal online education possible, many Filipino students are unjustly disadvantaged by internet access.

In a normal classroom setting, my students in the oversized “magisterial class” have to endure the lecture till the bell rings. Nobody can leave unless they are threatened: externally by earthquake or fire, internally by a full bladder or an anxiety attack. Online, they have the option to rewind, fast-forward, or worse, delete. On campus, students deal with my Teaching Assistant; but online, they can message me directly or post a question or comment on a Help Chat 24/7—generating more engagement than I was previously used to.

My lectures are recorded and can be viewed at the student’s time and pace, the synchronous or on-cam classes not for lecturing but for discussion, consultation, or feedback. It helped that students’ names appear on Zoom, making it easy to call on them for comment. Canvas analytics tells me who has not been participating or engaging with the online content, not submitting requirements, etc. such that during the midterm, I messaged each student individually to find out what their issues were and how we could solve them.

Chatting with them revealed that they are stressed out on many levels, opening me to their world and their anxieties. Despite my easygoing behavior, I am strict about rules and am famous as a low-grader because I was taught early on that “if you give high grades you have low standards.” All that washed away in the new platform, making me a more caring teacher, teaching me belatedly what the Jesuit “cura personalis” (“care for the entire person”) really means in our times.

Life won’t return to “normal” for me after lockdown. I doubt if Ateneo will allow the 90-seater magisterial classes I have been handling for over a decade now. Neither will the Ayala Museum allow my annual 600-seater History Comes Alive lectures when it reopens next year, but we take life as it is and try to make the best of a bad situation. One learns to ride rather than resist waves, seeking opportunity in turbulence. The pandemic was a welcome reboot in the way I have been teaching and taught me how live cura personalis online.

Taking students from an Introduction to Philippine Visual Arts class to Intramuros where the visual aids are larger than life.