Vivian is a faculty member currently working with the Assessment Centre in the School of Access at Camosun College. While Vivian did not teach in the classroom during the past year (although she was prepared to jump in), she still wanted to learn more about online teaching, so she signed up for the Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) Fundamentals course in Fall 2020, which she completed in addition to her full-time work in the Assessment Centre. Vivian was concerned because, in her own teaching, she relies heavily on connecting with students and she was not sure how she could build community in a completely online environment. “FLO was really helpful because one of the first things I learned was that building community online was indeed one of the biggest challenges I would have to overcome in order to connect with students”.
Some of the tips for building community Vivian took away from FLO included students creating introductions of themselves (and the option for them to use video), using the chat and discussion boards to get to know each other, and small group projects to help build those connections. She also appreciated being a learner herself, saying “I think that was the most valuable part of the FLO course, feeling like a student.” By experiencing not only the complexity of learning content, but also learning the technology, she was able to understand some of the challenges students experienced, especially during that first term when everything moved online so suddenly.
One take-away for Vivian from FLO (which explores asynchronous online learning) is that in an online learning environment, “learners can take more time to reflect and craft their responses through chat. Having time to respond is especially important for those students who find conversations challenging in face to face classes and prefer a bit of think-time.”
In addition to learning more about how online learning can work for students, over the past year Vivian also learned how to adapt her own work to a completely virtual forum. While she doesn’t work hands-on with students in her current role, she works closely with the Assessment Centre, the unit responsible for the majority of placement assessments and external exams at Camosun. “So immediately, once COVID hit, external exams were discontinued and priority shifted to supporting Camosun students. There was a huge challenge moving to completely online.” Fortunately, the Assessment Centre was already using a virtual proctoring system that enabled students to take assessments at a distance and were able to support students with their assessment needs quickly. After several months, the Assessment Centre returned to offering on campus assessments; however, many students chose the virtual option because they preferred to complete the assessment from the safety and comfort of home. Vivian notes, “I think that’s a change that will continue; students will have the choice to come into the Assessment Centre or to complete their assessments online.”
Like many other faculty developing online courses, Vivian found one of the challenges to doing everything virtually was the amount of time it can take to work in the online environment. “Some assessment tasks have smoothed out, but others still take a fair bit of time. There was a huge learning curve during the transition, but everybody worked together to ensure students received what they needed.” At the same time, Vivian has found that she is very productive working at home (which I personally can relate to!), although she misses people. “I think people would probably have resisted many of the changes we implemented had they not been thrown into it, and I think that is the revelation for everybody: most people walked away with some value from this experience, even though it was really challenging.”
I asked Vivian if she had any advice for faculty who might be teaching online for the first time. Vivian says, “The students are going to be nervous – they may not be familiar with online learning, or the platform may be very different from what they’ve worked with previously. Students will look to their instructors for assistance and instructors will need to be patient in those early weeks. Vivian says she would also encourage instructors “to consider reducing the amount of material assessed for marks. Assign practice work as just that – practice. This will reduce the pressure on students and places responsibility on them to complete practice work for understanding, as opposed to marks.” Over this past year she came to recognize the importance of paring back course content to find the balance for students. “There are certain expectations and learning outcomes that you need to address, but being aware of what students really need to learn to meet those outcomes may allow you to cover some topics less extensively.”
As Vivian closed our conversation, she affirmed, “it’s so very valuable, I think, for any experienced teacher to have some time to reflect on questions such as, “Do I need to test everything? Can I create opportunities for students to work together to solve problems in the virtual classroom? How are students responding to this new format for learning?” And finally, “What can we take from this past year that benefits our students?”