Brent teaches in the Medical Radiography program at Camosun, a program with a long history of using D2L to support its face to face offerings. When I asked him about his experience moving completely online last year, he said “my personal experience with the transition is that it was born out of necessity in a chaotic time that was predicated on decisions that were made external to my locus of control.” A good way to describe something that took over our lives and which we had no power to change. In fact, he described the experience of last March as less about planning and more about simple survival, which I am sure others can relate to.
Brent had definitely used online tools, and other educational technology, to support his teaching before COVID. “I’ve always been very adventurous in trying out new things. I try to find the optimal tool for the learning outcome that I’m working on with the learners, and I find it such a fun world to explore – we’re finally reaching a point now with options like H5P where all of a sudden coding is accessible for educators. But the tools still need to be thought out, used intentionally, and be authentic to the educator using them.” Thinking out the appropriate use of technology for his teaching during this past year, meant that Brent ended up teaching blended: asynchronous with “some synchronous components that were reserved mostly for getting people on the same page, and for discussing more difficult concepts that required instant feedback.” The asynchronous was reserved for content and providing “directions of what was required during the week. The key thing as the instructor is to understand where complexities arise so they can be dealt with proactively by getting people together [synchronously] for a more wholesome discussion.”
Brent says that the biggest challenge he faced in the past year was around nurturing and creating community and relationships in the asynchronous world. “When you are face to face with students there are various non-verbal cues communicated between people. But when you don’t have access to see, to hear, to get immediate feedback verbally from learners, it disrupts that model. So the biggest challenge is learning how to maintain a semblance of that relationship with learners in a different setting altogether.” And this requires building new skills in an effort to achieve the same outcomes for a course you wouldn’t normally teach online – something many faculty were not ready for when the switch to fully online happened last year.
Brent has seen many rewards over the past year, saying that “I think probably the single biggest reward is that learners are able to access education in ways that best suit their lifestyles. A face-to-face program often defines a student as someone who can attend from 8:30 am till 5:30 pm, can drive to campus and not have to leave during that time, and has five hours after school to do their homework. The transition to online learning has forced educators and administrators to rethink traditional approaches, and how those traditional choices have impacted people. The whole idea that you can’t learn or work from home has been completely blown out of the water by the fact that, well, we’ve been doing it for a year.” Echoing my own thoughts, Brent says that in order for us to survive and thrive as post-secondary institutions, “we need to start embracing and cultivating technology because that’s going to help us become more sustainable. It’s not a matter of if we should use technology to support teaching and learning, it’s a matter of when, especially in terms of truly serving our community, because our community is asking for better access to education.”
But, simply embracing technology is not enough. “As great as technology is it’s not something that you just throw on the education buffet table and say this is the only item that you get to eat here today. It’s also less about what you’re throwing on the table and more about how you’re using it.” Cultivating relationships and recognizing that every learner’s journey is different, regardless of whether you teach using technology or not, represents “the real skill of the educator, understanding that it’s going to be an adventure and there’s no one singular path to your destination.”
Brent has some advice for faculty starting to move into online teaching. “You will fail, and that’s okay. It’s humbling and stressful, so have compassion for yourself, just as you would for your students when they stumble.” In addition, Brent stresses the importance of having an open mind. “Know your values and approach to education really well, because the more grounded and crystal clear you are about your approach to education and what your values are, the easier it will be to be creative and to learn from the experiences of others. If you worry that you’re alone in all this, you’re mistaken: there’s many people who’ve walked these trails, especially over the last year.”
Moving forward, Brent says that his ideal is for learners to “have complete autonomy and agency in terms of deciding how, when, and where they would access their education”, and while that might not be possible institutionally any time soon, it certainly is a goal worth pursuing. “As an educator, I really value the place of Camosun as an institution within our greater community, and I think the whole point of the institution is to help raise everybody’s boat higher. But in order to do that, we need to work towards lowering barriers and increasing the access to programming.”