I’ve known Lynda for a while now. I remember back in the days before COVID, before the Nursing group moved to a brand new building on Interurban Campus (I work at Lansdowne Campus), running up to her office every once and a while when she had questions about setting up tools in her D2L course site (she primarily used the Assignment drop-boxes and posted some Content to support students outside of class time.) I would sometimes run a mini-workshop for all four faculty members in her office – ah, I miss those days.
Lynda recently “sat down” with me again to talk about her experiences moving to online teaching. She confessed, “I think at first I was terrified because … I’m not really adept at using technology…So it was quite threatening for me to have to move into an online world when we had to adjust to using D2L and teaching online. But since that time, I think I’ve done my very best to learn as quickly as I can and then apply that to my classroom.” And she definitely has!
Last March, Lynda was teaching clinical practice groups. It was challenging moving from an in-person-care learning experience to “suddenly creating whole new learning activities that would…provide students with an opportunity to apply theory in an online learning setting. So it was a challenge and we actually worked as a team. There were…probably ten instructors, all contributing ideas and trying to create learning activities.” Last fall, Lynda was lucky enough to have her clinical groups back in face to face practice, but her three-hour theory course remains completely online. “[W]e usually have about an hour and a half of synchronous class time, then I post activities or other things to … support their learning.”
Aside from having to design new strategies for moving face to face activities online, Lynda says the biggest challenge for her has been missing the non-verbal cues she relies on in the classroom, something I think many faculty unused to teaching online can relate to. “[I]n a classroom of 40, I’m watching people’s faces, I’m looking for their expressions, their body language. [I]f you say, are there any questions and nobody responds, I’m still watching the non-verbal [cue]s to see if they’ve got it or they don’t. …In the online environment, it was a real challenge…because when you ask, do you understand or are there any questions and no one responds,…it’s really difficult to assess.” One trick Lynda learned was to “establish 1-to-1 communications – I wasn’t talking to a class of 40 anonymous people. I was learning who they are person by person and connecting with them as much as I could… establish[ing] that there were people out there who were listening and maybe as stressed about being in an online environment as I was, and acknowledging that with them…And I think after a while they became more open with me because I was willing to be authentic and open with them.”
But there have been rewards too. “When I first started, I was so nervous and trying to do the best I could to create an online community for [students] and make sure I was meeting their learning needs … I think the biggest positive has been that they’ve acknowledged that they can really tell that I’m trying hard. I do regular check-ins … just to see, are they getting what they need from me? And is the learning going well? And so far, the feedback has been quite good.” But in addition to student feedback giving Lynda confidence, she also has found herself enjoying this new mode of teaching. “When I first started, I thought, I’m not going to enjoy any of this…But I think taking the FLO (Facilitating Learning online) course as well as all those little short workshops…[a]nd then working with colleagues – some of our course teams would get together and do a little practice sessions that really helped build my confidence … [A]ll these little things: after I’d done them one or two or three times and it got smoother, I think my stress started to melt away a little bit and I just started enjoying the online learning environment. And also building that sense of community which I didn’t think we would be able to do online – I think all of those things contributed to my comfort in the online environment.”
Lynda also shared some advice she has for people who might just be starting to move online. First, “really be structured with posting a news item every week to let the students know exactly where they should be in their studies and where they should be focused on in the modules. And then the second part is that synchronous approach… to be creative and provide lots of different types of learning opportunities in the synchronous sessions.” Lynda’s synchronous sessions are no longer than an hour and a half at a time, and “[r]ather than doing hour and a half lectures, [I] pre-record 15-20 minutes of content, letting them look at that independently, and then just make the online environment more of an exchange with learning activities that satisfy, rather than me trying to lecture them on there.”
Will she keep using some of the tools she’s learned to use when her classes return to face to face? Lynda says yes, especially “pre-recording [course material which] I think is really helpful for the students. And also it is more welcoming to them if they know who you are before they get to the classroom. If you can share bits of yourself with them and they start developing trust in who you are, it helps them when they enter a classroom, whether that’s an online classroom or an in-person classroom.” Finishing by noting “I’ll always enjoy them face-to-face more, but I can still connect and support and provide them with learning when we’re not face-to-face.”
I want to note that stories like Lynda’s make it sound like moving your courses online, during a pandemic or not, is easy once you get through your initial anxiety. But it’s not, and it wasn’t. Faculty here at Camosun, and at institutions all over, had (and continue to have) huge struggles and hurdles to overcome with very little time and sometimes limited support, giving up evenings, weekends, vacation, etc. to make sure they best serve their students. Developing fully online courses in a pandemic is not the model we should want to subscribe to, but I am going to keep celebrating all the faculty (even those whose stories I am not able to tell) who faced their fears and stress and made it happen in spite of it all.