Reflecting on where we are today as a teaching institution

I was originally planning to write a reflection on the amazing faculty interviews I conducted over the past year and to look a bit at where we are all at now, almost 2½ years since we moved online due to a global pandemic.  But last week an amazing thing happened.  Our virtual Teaching and Learning Community of Practice had a record number of participants and an amazing conversation.  Why you ask?  Well, I could posit many reasons.  For example, many of our faculty have more time and bandwidth now for discussions with colleagues, especially if they are on scheduled development time.  But what I think really sparked interest this time around was the topic chosen for this particular day and time:  student disengagement.

The article that sparked the conversation, sent in advance, was from The Chronicle of Higher Education and is called A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection:  Professors are reporting record numbers of students checked out, stressed out, and unsure of their future. And after 2 and a half years of online, kind of in-person, fully in-person (except for the students who are sick at home with COVID or mental health issues) and faculty exhausted from bouncing back and forth, who could be surprised by this?

Some faculty I’ve talked to were so excited to get back to the classroom after being forced to teach online for a year and a half (we are talking “back to normal” last fall), but that excitement didn’t last for all of them.  Students were bouncing in and out of classes with a variety of concerns, the Centre for Accessible Learning experienced record numbers of accommodation requests, and faculty were left, often on their own, to figure out how to support students to learn the material and emerge with some success.

This, I believe, sparked the record attendance last week.  I even spoke to another faculty member who was very disappointed to have missed the conversation (he had another commitment at the same time).  What I wanted to share in this post were some of the things faculty needed to talk about.

  1. Students don’t seem to learn as well online as they do face to face – whether this is true or not, do we do a good enough job of preparing them for the realities of learning online and teaching them the skills required to be successful in online delivery?
  2. Technology is distracting (and some is designed to be distracting) and addictive, but there is an expectation of being able to bring in and use technology in the classroom.
  3. But technology is sometimes necessary to support students and enhance their learning – how do we find the right balance?
  4. There is a perception that students are not engaging in in-person classes – one faculty member said she related to a quote from the article where a student said, “I want so badly to be active in my classroom, but everything still feels, like, fake almost.”
  5. There is a disconnect when students come to post-secondary from high school – is it just the COVID grads? Do we need to provide more formalized learning skills courses for new (or all) students?
  6. Student absences are disruptive to the flow of the course and faculty are struggling with how to engage with all students whether they are present or not.
  7. Do we do students a disservice by accommodating them endlessly and not holding them to account for deadlines? Are faculty spending too much time teaching basic “adulting”?
  8. It’s not just students. Faculty (and I would add support staff as well) feel disengaged and like they have lost the ability to concentrate fully.
  9. Some faculty feel like they have lost the ability to teach.

In my opinion, based on many, many conversations with faculty, and hearing from them in the Community of Practice, faculty need more opportunities to talk about their struggles and questions and experiences, as well as space to brainstorm ideas on how to address student disengagement and faculty burnout – to hear from others what they’ve tried (both what worked and what didn’t).

But in addition to peer-to-peer engagement (with both faculty in their programs and outside), faculty also need opportunities to engage meaningfully with administration around their experiences over the past 2½ years. Only then can we work together to build potential solutions. If we are to support students where they are at, and where they want to be (and listen to their needs for more flexible options to fit their lifestyles – and let’s be frank:  if we don’t listen, some of those students will go elsewhere and can we really afford that given the fiscal restraints we are all facing in post-secondary in BC?) we need to support faculty AND the other folks at the college who support faculty and students.

Coming back was not coming back to “normal”.  That ship has sailed, and we need to negotiate a new world, not bury our heads in the sand and hope to pop up back in 2019.

NOTE: I want to thank my colleagues in CETL and the facilitators of the Teaching and Learning Community of Practice for their comments and editorial suggestions for this piece.  We are stronger in community!

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