Kari is a faculty member in the English Department at Camosun College. When the pandemic moved everyone online back in March 2020, Kari, who was teaching four in-person courses, says “at the beginning it was all panic and we just did what we could. But there one thing that happened despite that panic: we, in the English department, started supporting each other in amazing ways.”
Finally, the winter term was over, and the summer term arrived. While several English faculty members, including Kari, had scheduled development (SD) leave, there were three or four others who had to teach online with no prep time at all. But they were not left to flounder on their own and their colleagues on SD stepped up to support them. Kari related one example of that support: “Michael Stewart was teaching English 163, so I and two other members of the English department read and watched all the material in his class. Then Michael and the three of us created videos of us analyzing and discussing the course material, which Michael then posted on his D2L site for his students.”
At one point as well, one of Kari’s colleagues sent out a cry for help asking for someone to co-create a lesson with her. “So, three of us got together and created a lesson which I’m also using now because it is on a topic covered in multiple courses.” But this co-creation of materials was not just a boon for faculty, but also useful from the student’s perspective. “Because I’m still using some of those videos in my in-person class, using them as extension materials, students have the opportunity to watch experienced readers engaging in dialogue, building on each other’s ideas, disagreeing, and then finding understanding. We modelled discourse and disagreement, and how you can move through that to come to understanding, I think, from the student’s perspective, was really rich in building their understanding of these concepts.” Another interesting outcome of this collaboration was that faculty members were essentially coming into each other’s classes reading each other’s course materials and discussing them, and Kari says she is grateful to have been a receiver as well as a giver within this context. “On one hand, it’s important to have the academic freedom to do the things we want to do in our classes, but on the other hand, we don’t normally ever go into each other’s classes. We don’t ever see what other instructors are doing and seeing each other in action is a great way to learn. This opportunity has helped us get a better sense of what other instructors do in their classes and how other they approach topics in our field.”
One of the challenges Kari faced preparing for teaching online back in 2020 was that there is “a difference between taking an in-person class and throwing it online, and actually designing an online class, because it takes a long time to put together a well-conceived, well-supported online course.” And in addition to trying to create good online courses without adequate time, Kari told me that “the biggest challenge for me was not being able to put a face and personality to the students.” To try and build some community, she set up online co-writing sessions with her students. “I said, I’m going to be online and I’m just going to do my thing, so you can come do your thing. Some of the students did come to those sessions which I think was valuable for all of us because I was able to interact with them directly. It really brought home how much, for me, teaching is about interactions with people and watching them build community amongst themselves.”
One lesson Kari has learned from moving courses online and working with students struggling during COVID-related stress and absences is that flexibility is important for both teaching and learning. As a result, she is now flipping her classes to leverage the best of both the online and in-person worlds. “I’m saying to the students, all materials are online, and when you come to class, we’ll discuss the material and do writing exercises. Then when they do come to class, we are having great conversations, and doing in-class writing exercises and a lot of peer work because those are the things that you can’t do as effectively online.” What Kari is also excited about is that flipping the class “gives students more autonomy. They can decide how much further they want to go with the material, if they want to learn more.” And in addition, it opens the door for them to learn from others, including Kari’s colleagues. “Often when students come into your classroom the only person they learn from is you, but this way they learn not only from you, but also from each other and from other instructors.”
Kari has some advice for faculty moving to online teaching. “First of all, ask for help. There is a lot of help available both institutionally, and within the department. And second, if you’re teaching online, keep it simple. Ask yourself what are the key things the students need? How can they achieve them? And finally, make sure to communicate with the students in whatever way you find most helpful. What I do with my online students is I send a note on Fridays telling them what’s coming up the next week. And then on Monday I say, hey, welcome to this week.”
Moving forward, Kari tells me “I feel like I would like to get better at figuring out what’s best online and what’s best in-person and taking advantage of both.” In addition, now that courses have moved back to a mostly pre-pandemic teaching mode, Kari and her colleagues are looking forward to building on the kind of collaboration that evolved over the past two years, creating course materials that can be used by many instructors. I know I am excited to see that, while the English department already had a strong culture of collaboration prior to COVID, it was further strengthened through the common goal of designing and sharing good online activities.