Asha is a faculty member in the Community Child Family Studies program at Camosun. Now, Asha’s programs are cohort-based, so not only did she face moving all her current students online in March 2020, but they also had a brand new cohort starting in May 2020, meaning they would start off their Camosun studies as online learners! “We were a bit panicked about how we could make the student experience relational, because our program is about interpersonal relationships. So collectively our faculty worked together to figure out how we were going to make this happen when everyone’s learning to navigate the technology of Collaborate and online learning. That was so great, that peer-to-peer piece where everyone was helping each other.”
While Asha’s program had to postpone some courses due to practicum changes in our community, and found it challenging to move the rest online so quickly without time to prepare, the challenges weren’t all bad. “We thought, we’re educators. We can figure out all these things. We didn’t have to do everything, but we could start small and build from there. I think a big takeaway from going online is that we can scaffold how we teach online and what tools and technology we use. We can learn little pieces, get good at them, and learn some more, and keep the best of them depending on what works for our teaching style.” But in addition to sorting out the pieces, and learning how to teach in this new online mode, Asha says “we also had to support our students in learning what it means to be an online learner. I think the technology lent itself well to scaffolding this learning, and they gradually built confidence around it. So, it was two-fold for the students: building technology skills and confidence, and building confidence learning new content.”
Like many faculty, Asha also found herself developing online courses as she was teaching them, working to “translate things to online figuring out different ways to do things, and still being creative, while finding ways to keep students engaged like I would have in a face-to-face classroom. In addition, many students were reluctant to be online, so creating community and maintaining a culture of safety was a challenge. But we overcame that in many ways, for example, playing games online, dancing in our classes, working in smaller groups, respecting our diverse needs and cultures and building peer support, which helped.” In the end, Asha says that they did the best they could, and students still learned, still understood the big ideas, and were able to continue to develop as compassionate learners and professionals.”
When I asked about any rewards Asha sees from the past year, she told me that she has always been interested in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and thinks that, overall, courses were better designed for UDL because “we used closed captioning on videos, readings were more accessible for reading, and I think the online provided opportunities for many students to learn in the ways that suit them. I think we met the needs of a more diverse group by going on line.” Asha also told me how surprised she was with the closeness some of the cohorts developed. “I thought people would feel more disconnected, but they found ways to be connected by building relationships through the technology or outside of class. What also surprised me was how creative students can be when they have to use technology to create assignments. For example videos, podcasts, skits online or demonstrating their learning in other ways, which is UDL.”
In addition, Asha was delighted to discover inventive ways to bring her personality into the online classroom. “For example, every class I showed something from my garden, and that became part of the culture of the classroom. And then the students started bringing things in – we were creating our community of learners.” And this community ended up including students from different parts of Canada and the world. “We had the beginnings of this global network, which I thought was really exciting because in a live online classroom, we were hearing different perspectives from people living in different countries.”
Asha learned many lessons from last year, including one that keeps coming up again in again in my conversations with faculty. “We have learned new ways to deliver our courses, as well as how to meet and collaborate with our colleagues, which I’d like to explore more.” Although she did recognize the challenge learning online is for some students. “Some people didn’t love being online, and some people really needed a personal connection. So one question I still have is how do I keep students motivated in an online environment?” The advice Asha has for anyone moving their courses online is “to be gentle with yourself because you do know what you’re doing. You know how to connect with students, and that will come through online. But also dig into all the resources you can find, and challenge yourself to try somethings you never did before. And remember you are not alone and that you can reach out to colleagues for support”
Moving forward, Asha’s Interurban cohort program is staying online for Fall 2021, with a plan to have face-to-face with some blended courses in the Winter 2022 term. “We’d like to potentially offer a completely online program at some point, because we recognize there’s a need for that in our community.” Asha does think that we, at the college, need to all take some time to reflect on all that we have accomplished, all that we have learned over the past year and a half. “We have already begun to reflect on how our eyes and minds were open to the creativity of online teaching and learning, and to the many things we actually gained going online. But now we need to take what we’ve learned, and think about how we want to deliver courses in the future, about what courses could stay online, which could be blended, etc. Ask ourselves, does everything have to be in the lab or classroom or can we do some things virtually? Can we condense things and have students on campus for shorter amounts of time? It has made me rethink how we schedule and design education.” And I definitely agree with something Asha said to me, “I think this year has allowed us to blow up education a bit – it allowed us as a college and as educators to jump forward a few years, and hopefully we don’t retract entirely back into what was our comfort zone – this goes for all levels of the College. I think this year we saw some of the most creative work and dedication from faculty- they showed professionalism and innovation in a pandemic, and I hope that faculty are encouraged to keep creating education in new ways.”
Asha’s final words reflect how I think so many feel now. “It was a pretty emotionally draining year, but I think that allowed us to feel more empathy and compassion for our students and for each other. We needed each other more than we would have done before.” Let’s hope we don’t forget that!