Bev is a faculty member in Psychology at Camosun. She started our conversation by telling me she and her department colleagues had been using D2L to support their students before March 2020. “D2L is a big part of reinforcing what is taught in the classroom: posting news items and lecture notes, and encouraging students to monitor their grades, assignments, etc.” Even with this familiarity, “When we transitioned, the biggest challenge was trying to keep student course engagement and connection, especially students who find questioning and talking freely in-person challenging and now their faced with working completely online.” Bev was thankful she already had developed a good rapport with her students. She emailed students of concern, encouraging them to meet in course collaborate, and offered flexible office times for them to do so.
May was fast approaching, and since Bev would be teaching in May and June, she needed to find a way to get ready. When students registered, for May/June courses, they were registering for face-to-face delivery. “I didn’t have a ton of time to get ready. Fortunately, I relied heavily upon our instructional assistant in Psych who is well-versed in online delivery.”
In April, Bev surveyed students about their online experience, access to technology, and what their living situations were like to help her think about how to set up her course. “One of the things I had to be mindful of was their home environments. Many of them were sharing, for example, a one-bedroom apartment with four or five other students.” Knowing the challenges her students would be facing, she worked hard to build in engagement, utilizing the breakout rooms in Collaborate, for student-student interaction and she set up discussion posts for supporting peer connections. A three-hour scheduled face to face class was now a three hour collaborate session, using break out rooms. “Collaborate and breakout rooms were as a new to them as they were to me, so I continually asked for feedback on what was working and what wasn’t working for them.”
Bev was using the synchronous environment for discussion and elaboration, and D2L as delivery of information; by the end of spring semester, she found herself flipping her teaching. “I realized toward the end of June that my role as an instructor had changed. I was not delivering the content as much as I was elaborating on the content, meeting with students, addressing their questions, and building on the content in a number of different modalities, while students were more in control of navigating the course content on their own.” What Bev found most valuable that spring was working with her two colleagues who were also teaching then. “We would meet regularly and brainstorm what was working. It really helped when I was feeling overwhelmed or challenged, and this networking with colleagues became as important to me as networking with my students.”
Bev told me that by the time fall rolled around, “I was feeling less overwhelmed and really inspired because I realized all that this online environment could do.” She polled her students again in June around how the delivery methods worked for them and “was surprised with the results. Even though they said they thought it was intense, they liked the week-to-week engagement.” Now, Bev faced a new challenge for her fall interpersonal communication course with a lab component. Her challenge was how to incorporate the experiential learning piece, “a lot of the skill development requires sitting together face to face and practicing the skills. Skill demonstration by me in a face-to-face class was replaced with videos downloaded in Kaltura from YouTube, uploaded in course media, and embedded throughout the lecture modules.
Additionally, Bev had about 11 students registered with the Centre for Accessible learning with a variety of accommodation needs. “I was trying to get my head around how the online delivery can support students in meeting some of the course objectives, while at the same time address a few unique accommodations.” To help her navigate the wide world of online accommodations and accessibility, Bev reached out to instructional designer. “She helped me not only design the course, but she also implemented BBAlly, which measures level of accessibility. This accessibility report includes a course percentile score and graphs areas for improvement. For example, I use a lot of images in my teaching, and I had to go back now and describe the images, put captions in the videos, etc.” This work was eye-opening for Bev, because it “made me realize how much I assume that students understand given instruction, in classes face-to-face. I went back to what I had already set up in my D2L course and integrated more instructions. For example, I would put assignment instructions not only in the assignment itself, but also in a number of pertinent places throughout the D2L course.”
During the fall 2020 and winter 2021, Bev found very few students, in her asynchronous course, attended virtual office hour. “I wondered if they were overwhelmed with everyone still facing isolation. Given their need for socialization, and the extent this process was lacking, links to various support services were incorporated into my course outline and flexible office times increase my availability to students.”
In addition to these challenges around connection, Bev found many rewards through teaching online. In particular, “I saw the lock down as an opportunity to focus on my own learning, and it was also a refresher from face to face – being able to look at what works in a face-to-face environment and try to incorporate that into the online environment. An online environment offers so much more than I expected, beyond my expectations.” In the end, Bev says that “there’s a fine line between being a learner and being a teacher. And for me, it’s a circular process. I’m thankful to have had this opportunity, this challenge, and at this time in my career, to discover what technology can do. I’m thankful I feel more connected to students now than I did at the beginning of the pandemic.
As to what advice Bev has for new online instructors? “Identify what’s important to you in your course, where your strengths lie as an instructor, then reach out to others when faced with challenges. Remember that you’re not alone: whatever challenge you think you’re facing, expertise is available, and you do not have to face the challenge alone.”
Moving forward, Bev says she is sold on online learning. In fact, when she was back teaching in person last fall, Bev found herself, wondering: “can I do this again? Can I be in a face-to-face situation? Can I be as strong as I felt on the online environment?” And she discovered the online and in-person teaching/learning works together to support students. “I keep things pretty much as they were in a completely online environment. I use BBAlly to measure the accessibility piece, and I think supporting diverse learners in an online platform with this piece is what I’m really sold on.”
An example is the communication skills course taught, fall 2020, is kept fully online to reinforce the in-person delivery. “I tell students that the course basically is in D2L. I will be demonstrating some skills in class, but everything’s in D2L. I outline the advantages of coming to class, and do not penalize them if they don’t show up – I’m not measuring them based on skill participation in class. In this way, the class environment enhances the online environment. I no longer see me as the deliverer of content. I see myself as the manager of content, more importantly, the monitor of student progress and the supporter to students ‘academically.”
Bev ends by telling me that she thinks there will always be a place for in-person learning. “The human connection is the piece that we don’t get online, for that we need face-to-face. In terms of the instructional piece, I don’t think we can afford to only deliver content face-to-face. I think we’ll lose too many students. How we see learning ongoing needs to be outside the four walls of the classroom and outside a specific timeframe. Face-to-face to me is just one modality – it’s a very small piece.”