Brent is a faculty member in the Medical Radiography (MRAD) program at Camosun College (and yes, there are TWO Brents in MRAD!).  Because most of Brent’s courses are labs requiring students be face-to-face, when the college moved online in March 2020 he faced significant challenges, including facing a program cancellation for that initial period of the lockdown.  But Brent told me he “was lucky because as we learned more about COVID, the addition of safe-start options to the initial restrictions allowed us to adapt our lab time, meaning I was able to get some face-to-face time with the students.”

Because in-person class time was limited, Brent ended up flipping his class.  Students accessed the lecture material asynchronously, and in-class time was dedicated to questions and discussion.  Brent decided to look at it as an opportunity to try something new, explaining “our program is very intense and normally involves students being in class for full days, but because of the pandemic, I didn’t want to put pressure on them to have to show up for long hours. Therefore, this became the first time I put more ownership on the students to complete work outside of class, which was hard for me to do because a lot of what I did before was very teacher-driven.” Brent also found flipping difficult because “I love teaching face to face – that’s what gets me up in the morning: building connections, having inside jokes, and getting to know the students and how they work.”

Brent taught two cohorts last year, one of whom was new to the program.  Like other faculty in this situation, Brent noticed a difference between how these two groups reacted to the way courses were taught during COVID.  The new group, of course, didn’t know what to expect.  “We worried that we would miss something important, but in the end my colleague Sarah and I were able to trim the fat a little and concentrate on what was really needed to cover the course outcomes.”  In addition to having limited time face-to-face, class sizes were also limited due to restrictions.  “There were a total of 16 students, separated into blocks of four for the lab time, so the full class never interacted as a larger group.  In addition, Sarah and I only taught eight students each, so we each only met half the class,” and for this group, the flipped model seemed to work well.  “They had to have worksheets completed before coming to lab, and they did all come in prepared because they knew how valuable the lab time was.”  In addition, because this group had less lab time there were other activities online to make up for this, and to enhance these activities, Brent searched for a virtual simulation tool he could integrate for students to use outside of lab time.  “It was hard to find a simulation tool that would be easy to use and give you what you need. And I wanted to make sure a new tool would support student learning rather than just adding to their stress.”  Eventually Brent found a tool which was applicable to the level one students, allowing them to use it on their own time, and giving them immediate feedback as well as a certificate.

Brent worked with his other group, the one who was not new to the program, a little differently “because they already had a relationship with us and craved more face-to-face time, so I ended up lecturing over Collaborate instead of having them prepare everything on their own. I wasn’t planning on doing that originally, but it was something those students needed, and I think it went really well for them.”

In addition to addressing different cohort needs in the face of limited face-to-face time, Brent faced the challenge of plunging into a new world, not knowing “how the courses were going to look and how students were going to react to them. I wasn’t worried about the technology, but I wanted to provide a good product and be proud of it.”  But Brent told me “my biggest challenge was to keep those student relationships. I lucked out because my course was blended, so I knew we would be okay because we had that face-to-face time. But it reinforced to me how important the learning environment is, and how important it is to devote the time to working on that connection between learners and instructor.”

When I asked him about what rewards he may have seen come out of this past year, Brent had a few things to say.  “What this has allowed me to do is change. There’s a certain point in your career where you need a challenge, and this allowed me to venture outside the box, which is something we ask students to do all the time. And if you can reflect on why something new is hard for you, you can relate better to your students.  And now I’m much more comfortable trying something new, and being ok if it doesn’t work, whereas before I put a lot of pressure on myself as an instructor to get it right all the time.  Now I know that as long as we have outcomes to meet, I can change how I meet them because students will still get what they need.”  But Brent tells me that his biggest takeaway was finding out how adaptable students are.  “They did an unbelievable job, even while juggling lots of other things in the background.”

I wanted to spotlight one other experience from last year Brent related to me.  “I used Collaborate when the year-ones went out to clinical. I hadn’t met some of them and my clinical hospitals were in the north of Vancouver Island, but I was recommended not to travel at that time, so instead I had bi-weekly Collaborate sessions with them.  What I noticed was that many of these students were away from home for the first time, and were now isolated due to the pandemic, as well as learning at a hospital, which is very difficult. Having these regular Collaborate sessions allowed some of them to open up about their challenges.  I’ve known since day one that teaching is about more than just content, but this experience really emphasized that.”

Brent’s advice to others who might be moving courses online is simple:  “Reach out and ask for help. Teaching can be isolating, and it can be hard to ask for help, but there are people out there who are willing to help. I enjoyed the opportunities to work with other peer groups in the college because we had to rely on each other a little bit more. In addition, just try something new and if it doesn’t work, adjust the sails.”  Brent also advises being prepared, but not holding onto expectations or predictions of how things will turn out, because “a lot of my stress comes from our expectations.”

Finally, moving forward, Brent tells me “we’re still going to teach blended online in September. We will continue to build on our library of videos and use the simulation tool.  I might also continue to record my lectures so students can go back and review them.”  And finally, Brent ended his conversation with me reiterating our need as instructors to emphasize care in addition to content in our teaching, saying “if you take care of the person, everyone is going to learn.”