Diane teaches in the BEST (Academic Upgrading Building Employment Success for Tomorrow) program at Camosun College. She started our interview expressing her feelings about moving to online teaching in March 2020: “I think it’s been amazing adventure with wonderful surprises, and an opportunity for me, as an instructor, to walk the talk, to be congruent with what I ask the students to do because I’m doing it as well, moving out of the comfort zone into the growth zone. I’ve been really touched by their acceptance, their patience, their understanding of us as a team as we tell them it’s not perfect, but we’re moving forward, we’re in the growth zone with you. It’s been just heart enriching and also skill enriching for me as an instructor.”
Diane is grateful first of all for all the support the college gave BEST students, providing them with computers and internet boosters. “I had some online curriculum in D2L to use which helped me when we moved online, but some of my students didn’t have Internet access or computers at home, and some only had smart phones. So I did a lot of talking and texting and emailing with that group. But by the fall, we had a tech assessment process in place and were able to get loaner laptops and Internet boosters for them. That was a huge for my teaching because I feel it’s important that everyone is on equal footing.” And she is also grateful to her team, Val (see Camosun Faculty Story 22: Val) and their Instructional Assistant Allyson, saying “I did a mountain adventure when I turned 40, and then a sea kayak surf adventure where I was part of the team leading, and there were a lot of parallels to the move online in terms of hard work, long hours, and that team approach, as well as the challenge to discover what you can accomplish mentally, physically, and spiritually.” In fact, I was priveleged to have all three of the BEST team, Diane, Val, and Allison, in one or more of my Facilitating Learning Online courses last year, and I can attest to their dedication to making the online environment work for their students.
Like many faculty members I’ve spoken to, Diane spent a lot of time thinking about how to connect with students during this incredibly stressful time. “In terms of teaching, I want to be tuned into how much stress they were under so I could make adjustments to assignments, to due dates, and to whatever it was that they needed. I didn’t want to hold them up to rigid timelines; I just wanted them to do their best and to stay connected.” Whatever the BEST team did must have worked for students, because Diane told me that they had better attendance in their synchronous online courses than they typically do in a face-to-face class. “People were rolling out of bed with their bed hair and logging in.”
Diane feels that having to learn online was beneficial for students in ways beyond just learning the course content. “I believe that students need this experience of being online, meeting online, etiquette online, and learning more about being a self-directed learner, including time-management and focus skills.” And in the past year, BEST has seen different kinds of students join the program. “We’ve had parents, a lot of gamers, and socially shy people taking the program and attending in a strong way. Learning online definitely provides more flexibility for some students, although I think some people still miss the face-to-face for sure. But I just talked to a student this week who said he wants to go on with online learning. It’s just more convenient,” not an uncommon discovery from the past year.
One other benefit to teaching and learning online Diane mentioned was being able to bring guest speakers into classes. “It’s so meaningful for the students – they love the guest speakers because we bring in people related to the career curiosities. So the guest speakers just need to log in, and they don’t have to drive and park and find out where the classroom is. It’s so easy for them.” And finally, Diane reiterated something Val mentioned in her interview around how much more easily students can share a bit of their world with the rest of the class. “Because they are in their own space, I’ll ask them to take five minutes and find an object that’s meaningful for them, then come back and tell the class why that object has meaning for them.”
The experience of the past year was not without its challenges though. The BEST team worked hard to hone the assessments for their courses so that there weren’t as many, so that students were not overwhelmed. “That’s what we’re doing now. These last eight months have been a wonderful pilot opportunity, and now we’re looking at what assignments to keep, adapt, or let go, as well as how to weight them because we’re also moving to articulate the program for adult graduate credit at the BC grad diploma credit.” And one other challenge, which will sound familiar to many, was trying to decide what pieces of the course should be asynchronous and what pieces should be, in as Diane put it, part of the “precious, precious synchronous time.”
Diane has several pieces of advice for anyone thinking of moving their courses online. First, she recommends looking for existing online curriculum so you don’t have to start completely from scratch. Second, get a team around you. Third, ask students for feedback. “Every week we asked for feedback, and then at the end of the program we asked for feedback on the whole experience.” And most importantly “don’t try to be perfect, just do the best you can and keep it simple.” Finally, Diane wants faculty to know that “it’s going to be a fun and challenging adventure. The first round is the hardest one, and then it’ll get better. Have faith, have fun people around you, take regular breaks, and remember that any crisis has incredible opportunity in it as well.”
The plans for BEST are to, for the time being, keep it online and refine the synchronous/asynchronous model the team has been working with. “I hope moving forward, by keeping BEST online, we can attract people from across the province and the country. We’ve also had interest in the program from international students, which was another surprising piece, although there are not many tuition-free education and career planning programs out there.”
Update: since this interview, Diane tells me that students from their last year’s BEST program (online!) are now enrolled in several Camosun programs this term, including Mental Health and Addictions, Mechanical Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Kinesiology, and Upgrading.