Allyson is an Instructional Assistant (IA) for the BEST program, now called Education & Career Planning program (EDCP). I have already shared stories from her colleagues, Diane and Val, as well as the story of the BEST program review as told by my CETL colleagues Monique and Deidre. So, of course, I wanted to see if Allyson would also be willing to talk to me, and she was!
Allyson started by telling me a bit about her background. “I had a 20-year career as a technical writer and instructional designer. As a technical writer, I wrote curriculum to support classroom learning, but I also developed asynchronous curriculum. But what was missing for me was direct contact with students. In the spring of 2020, I came to the BEST program.” Just as Allyson was looking forward to being in the classroom and moving away from her computer, COVID hit. But while she missed that in-person contact with students, “COVID was a blessing for me because I was right away able to apply my years of experience with online and asynchronous documentation. It was such a gift to have a new job that I wanted and to be able to connect with people, albeit online.”
Because she was new, Allyson was able to approach the new online delivery for BEST with fresh eyes. As you may remember from Monique and Deidre’s story of the BEST program review, they had online content to draw from (unlike many faculty who were creating their content at the same time they were learning to teaching online). “We had adopted the BC curriculum, which was for self-directed asynchronous learning. Initially, the content was structured by topic” which didn’t match with the way the BEST program approached content delivery. “After the first academic year we all agreed that it would be best if we moved to a week-by-week content structure, displaying that week’s content each Monday at 10:30 am. Then we added the Checklist tool which listed the readings, the assignment due dates and what students had to prepare for class.
Adding the Gradebook (and naming it My Progress) was huge help for both instructors and students. We don’t assign grades – we give strength-based feedback. By renaming it to My Progress and displaying the students’ week-by-week progress as they complete assignments, students can manage their own learning. But the Gradebook is also an important tool for the instructors to very clearly determine if a student has met the criteria for the certificate or not.”
With the new week-by-week curriculum organization, the Checklist and the Gradebook, the program design became more accessible and easier to navigate, and some of the weekly content could be lifted out and ported to other programs at Camosun.
Putting BEST online opened literally the world to anyone wanting to come into the program. “Being online allowed us to have a student in Chilliwack who, through our program, felt seen and heard. She turned a corner and is now on the path to following her dream. We could never have helped that student if we weren’t online. And now we now have inquiries and students from Canadians living in Chile, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg and Whitehorse. How amazing is that? We have also successfully added BEST to Camosun International’s roster of programs for international students.” The diversity of students goes beyond geographical location. “We have people who are just out of high school, retirees, and everyone in-between. That diversity is a huge benefit for our students. In the information sessions I talk about how everyone’s going to learn from each other, how the program reflects the diversity of real life.” But everyone in the class is there for the same reason: they are looking for guidance to help them make education and career choices that are a great fit for them.
Allyson explained that a large part of the process is making people feel safe to explore—to try new things. One example is when students try out a Table Topic after attending a Toastmaster mini session. “This is in week two: a couple of brave ones go first, and then the more hesitant students take a risk to join in. They feel safe enough to try new skills right then and there after being introduced to Toastmasters. I can’t stress enough how gifted Diana and Val are in terms of making people feel safe. That’s a huge piece of this program is making people feel safe to try new things.” And all this online!
But while Allyson admires the way Diane and Val work with students, she is equally a part of the team that makes BEST such a success. Val and Diane encouraged Allyson to consider which pieces she might want to teach, and since she has a passion for the power of an effective resume to land a job interview, she developed a four-part resume writing workshop to demystify and simplify the resume-writing process.
I asked Allyson what rewards she sees in the work she does, and she told me the reward “is when a student’s dream is realized by the connections that we help them make; the process of going through the program, going from feeling stuck to having confidence, and having the courage to go out and do something that they really want to do.” And over the past two years, Allyson has seen “many shining moments, even for that person who is just doing one small thing which may not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal – it’s a shining moment for that person.”
When I asked about lessons learned, Allyson said “what surprised me with the online classroom is how you can have an engaged, supportive learning space in an online environment. It doesn’t have to be in-person, and it may even be better because it’s so focused. Our students are so keen on coming to class on time, and they miss the regularity of the class after the program ends.” In their synchronous classes, they used breakout rooms frequently. “Every seven to ten minutes we’re getting them to do something which increases engagement.” But frequent communication between Allyson and the two instructors was also key to improving engagement. “Every morning at 8:30. I meet with the instructor so we can review the plan for the class. For example, if there was going to be Breakout groups, I know that ahead of time and so I am well prepared to support them. Having that advance check-in ensures that what happens during the class is as seamless as possible for the students.
My job as the Instructional Assistant is to listen for cues from the instructors and to keep an eye on the students’ participation.” You’re another set of eyes and ears for the instructor so they can concentrate on the content and the flow of the class; and you’re an advocate for the students to make sure they are heard.” The better you know your students, the more you can see their progress. “You can see them become more comfortable and less anxious as they open up, as they speak more.”
When reflecting on what she might say to herself of March 2020, Allyson said she might say “it will work out and it will become clearer. And students are going to be forgiving of mistakes. That first online class, those students were amazingly forgiving. They were so understanding because we were trying to figure it all out – I still think of them: even though there were bumps on the road, they still got a lot out of the program.”
Here’s to BEST (now EDCP) continuing to support and inspire students for years to come.