Val is a part-time instructor in the BEST (Academic Upgrading Building Employment Success for Tomorrow) program at Camosun College.  Because her primary role at Camosun is with CUPE, when she was brought in to teach for the program last spring/summer, it had been awhile (since 2003 or 2004) since she had taught online so she felt a bit anxious.  Luckily, teaching online is a bit like riding a bike, so they say, and after some brushing up and attending eLearning workshops she was able to breathe again.  “Am I completely proficient now? No. Do I have lots of room for growth? No question. But sometimes just being thrown in is the best way to learn to swim,” which I am sure other faculty over the past year can relate to.

Val is no stranger to online BEST-like programs, having taught up north to isolated communities.  “I came from a community college up north that had to run its programs by distance or else they wouldn’t have had a student population.”  Realizing the power of online learning to create community as well as inclusive and diverse learning opportunities, Val shared her teaching experiences with her group because she realized “that moving BEST online could grow our membership beyond Victoria proper.  For example, for a student taking a baby to daycare, then travelling from Langford to class and back again, which creates barriers, expense, and environmental issues, having classes online, some synchronous, some asynchronous is a beautiful mix.”

BEST, which is “about fostering and creating trust, learning communication, and moving through value-based discussions in career and educational exploration,” is a program that some people thought might suffer when it moved online.  If, as some people believe, 90% of our communication is body language, how do you connect with BEST students online?  But challenging as losing that face to face contact is, Val notes that learning online helps students with those essential technical skills they need to hone and feel comfortable with, telling me about the wide ranging abilities of students of all ages going from zero to sixty learning the technology!  But with that wide range of abilities, and additional need for support that comes with learning online, Val says they could not have run the courses as successfully without their Instructional Assistants.  I wish all programs could have dedicated student support like this.

Val had some challenges getting started.  First, deciding on the right delivery mode(s) and finding a balance for the students.  “I wouldn’t want it completely asynchronous because I think we would lose that incredible community teamwork, celebratory human piece that is harder to build in a purely asynchronous course.  It can be done, but it’s not the same. So I think for this program, when you’re dealing with values, feelings, conflict resolution, communication strategies, active listening, it’s pretty nice to have the synchronous component.”  Second, learning the technology.  Val worked with a colleague to move the content of the courses into D2L, but learning to use the tools effectively was one of her challenges. And “most challenging was keeping students engaged. I think that was our biggest worry. But we (Val and her colleague) have been profoundly moved because there has been more engagement virtually, better attendance, than I have ever experienced in my time in this BEST program.”

As you have already seen, Val has seen many benefits moving BEST online.  She especially wanted me to include the benefits to the environment and mental health by not having to be face to face all the time. “We are not contributing to a carbon footprint, and while there’s a mental health need to connect, I feel that we’re reducing stress because instead of frenetically driving through traffic to get places, students get to share their space, their animals, etc. which seems to bring some comfort and reduce anxiety.”  To expand on this, Val says she has gotten to know her students in a different way.  Because they are all coming in to the synchronous sessions from their homes, they can, and are, sharing more of their lives with the classes.  One student played the piano for their class, others have shown their home renovation projects, or shared their artwork.  “Are these related to career in education? Absolutely. Because they’re presenting, they’re building confidence, they’re showcasing their transferable skills.”  And Val has to wonder if any of this would have happened in the face to face classroom.

What Val takes away from this entire experience is that “anything is possible.  BEST brings everyone from a Fulbright scholar, to a student upgrading to grade ten, to a mom who hasn’t left the home, to a gamer (we’re getting the gamers who won’t leave the house!) The diversity of students is incredible. My takeaways are dream the dream and we can do it.”  The online future is bright for BEST.  “We see opportunity to grow the program.  We’re bringing in guest speakers from Ottawa, from Toronto, even TV Ontario guests, people we never have been able to bring in face to face.”  The possibilities are endless.

Given BEST’s future goals, Val wants to find time to do more training, and would like to see CETL and the college bring faculty together from across the college, from experienced online instructors to novices, to share their experiences, their tips, and their virtual skills to build capacity and community.  “I think community-building happens when I get to work with somebody I’ve never met before, in Arts or in Child and Family, or an IA in engineering because I think there’s a richness in community building that we really need at the college.” And this is something I hope to find ways to support!

“I think we need to recognize that there has been a shift in the world, from the environmental piece to accessibility for an older population, to the fact that there’s already so much community online. But there’s a sweet spot somewhere between being online and communicating face-to-face too.  I think my final words to you is we absolutely need to continue to create diversity in learning options and join the virtual world with alacrity, care, quality, and the assurance that we’re also being supported.”