Armando Alatorre Campos
CIMMGM (College of Mining Engineers, Metallurgists and Geologists of Mexico)
Expert Contributor

Teaching From Home: My Experience and Perspective

By Armando Ernesto Alatorre Campos | Tue, 04/27/2021 - 12:57

A year ago, and virtually overnight, the world was shocked by the COVID pandemic. Although the outbreak began in China a few months before, here in Mexico we were looking at it as a remote circumstance unrelated to us. Big mistake.

I am a geologist working as a faculty member at IPN and UNAM in Mexico City. I teach mining-related courses: Mineral Ore Deposits, Mining Exploration as well as Industrial Minerals and Rocks. On March 12, 2020 (Thursday), I finished my classes and went home. On Friday, I began a trip to Oaxaca to take advantage of the long weekend with a group of old classmates, with plans to return on Monday and get back to teaching on Tuesday. On the way there, I learned that Friday the 13th would be the last day of school until further notice. What?

Doubts began to pop into my head: How many days will that last? Should I do nothing or try to solve "something?" On the one hand, honestly, my mind was not focused enough; on the other, the news was completely confusing because of the lack of details on how or when any sort of solution would be implemented.

No one had a contingency plan of any kind, not the government, not the health system, not the industry, not commerce, nobody. On that long weekend, we were just told to leave everything, go home, stay there and wait for further instructions, which, unfortunately, never came. From then onward, "the home office" days that a few companies were already offering, mostly on Fridays, became the daily standard for everyone. For several reasons, including the need to feed the people, some industries and areas of commerce were not forced to a complete halt. Gradually, other sectors have returned to a certain level of “normal” working.

The school system at all levels, from kindergarten to graduate school, was among the first to suffer the full, shocking impact of the pandemic. It was the only activity that truly came to a complete stop, at least in the sense of not having any sort of activity at their facilities. Surely, it was the least prepared to respond at any level, impacting millions of children and youngsters. The instruction was: go home, teach or learn from there the best that you can while an answer is found to solve the health issue and get back to the classroom in about two weeks.

Amid the confusion and uncertainty, some teachers decided to wait for that period of time, expecting to return. It didn’t happen. Eventually, everyone began trying to implement some sort of classroom setting at home, even using a blackboard, but constraints such as budget, space availability and, above all, the need for video equipment made the task extremely difficult to achieve. With the launch of home-based teaching, many complaints arose: Why should I do it with my resources? For how long is this going to last? Do I have to remake the class materials to accommodate this new way of teaching? The students are getting into my private life, they can now see my house! It must be said that our knowledge about distance teaching was the bare minimum, with some extraordinary exceptions here and there.

The students themselves were not having an easy transition, either; however, that was not clear immediately. Probably more than half of the geology and mining students did not have a formal residence where their schools are located; they returned home to their families, wondering what would be next. A short time later, every student began to realize that their computers, internet, spaces at home, and so forth were not good enough for the task ahead. There have been situations of young people having to connect from a public place where they could rent, by the hour, the Wi-Fi signal and, sometimes, even the computer.

Everyone, students and teachers, was trying to make things similar to the usual teaching environment, but it was time to innovate, to change procedures, and, above all, to open new avenues for keeping in touch with the students, not just during class but as much as they needed. What is the difference between home teaching and home office? Some would say none, that both are pretty much similar. However, in a normal working office day, nobody has to deal with meetings of 20-40 people, three or more times a day. Suddenly, everybody was talking about and using Zoom; a platform almost unknown to the majority of teachers and students. Certainly, it was not the only platform available but, for some reason, it became the point of reference.

From that starting point, as good old-school engineers, we were looking for and implementing solutions that sometimes worked but not always. Therefore, it was trial and error in each meeting, I mean, class, until each professor was able to find something that worked for him, for his students as well as for the good of the subject being taught. It sounds easy now and despite all the complaints anyone might have, home teaching has its benefits: no one-and-a-half-hour-drive back and forth (my case), savings on gas consumption, better handling of mealtimes … being at home!

Will schools go back to normal sometime in the future? Truly, nobody knows for sure when that will happen. It seems to me that this process is going to remain with us for a long time. It’s likely that the new "normal" way of teaching will be a hybrid approach. What is most relevant is the learning experience that all of us have been going through. This past year will be recognized as the onset of a new era.

Photo by:   Armando Alatorre