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Category: Faculty Stories

Camosun Faculty Story #2: Kelly

Kelly is a faculty member teaching in the English Department at Camosun College. While she was not teaching when other instructors pivoted from face-to-face to online last March (has it already been a year?), over the summer she moved all her courses for fall into an online format, what she calls the steepest learning curve she’s faced since she began teaching.

I agree about that steep learning curve, since Kelly only really used D2L for posting grades and as a repository for some content before COVID. “I wasn’t even accepting assignment online,” Kelly notes. “Obviously it’s been a huge amount of work, [but] it’s also been really interesting to learn how to adapt that style of teaching to the content that I teach and to my style of teaching and my philosophies about connection which are a very strong part of my teaching.” And Kelly persevered, working within the new format while keeping the focus on what is important to her teaching. “It took me two months of full-time work to write what you see on D2L for each course, but I’m teaching people to be readers and writers. That’s my job.”

The brain of D2L, as Kelly puts it, presented one of the biggest challenges for her. Making edits and adjustments on Rubrics, for example, can drive one to distraction. “I spend so much time on formatting that it’s harder to develop new content.” Definitely one of the downsides to creating online content: making sure that the writing is clear, and also that visual design of pages are accessible. Kelly worries sometimes that the time it takes to put her existing content online makes it harder for her to find time to bring new research and innovation into her material.

Another challenge Kelly mentions, which will not be a surprise to anyone, is that she finds her synchronous sessions draining, wondering if anyone is out there. While attendance is high in her Collaborate sessions, “they will not use their cameras even when they have them…so that’s a bit alienating.” But she notes that the advantage to using Collaborate is that you can record the sessions for students who miss, or who need to go back and review a session. Not something you can do as easily in a face to face setting.

One of the upsides to moving her discussion-heavy courses online, Kelly says, is that she feels “connected to [her] students in a new way, and maybe a more thorough way” now. Through the online, text-based discussions, “they have to engage in the material in more than a superficial way,” which has also helped Kelly grade the discussions in a way she couldn’t before when they were more ephemeral. In fact, she says “the first time I opened the discussion and saw the level of work that was happening there, the amount of thought, I was blown away, and I still get so excited when I read those to mark them.” The students are learning without her jumping in all the time – learning from each other. That is one of the huge rewards from this experience.

The biggest takeaway from this experience for Kelly, as well as some advice she would give to new faculty, is “that if you know what your philosophical goal is with a course, you can make any method of teaching meet that goal,” but you have to know your goal first. Identify what is important to your teaching and then look for help with that, rather than asking undefined questions about the tools in D2L, etc. Ask yourself “What are your absolute must-haves of the tools that are available – really work hard on what you need and get that core down,” especially because you will be spending a lot of time planning and then getting things up and running (Kelly notes that she is grateful she had uninterrupted time for development, unlike some faculty who were teaching online for the first time in the Spring while also developing courses for the Fall.) Finally, organize your content. Kelly recommends thinking in terms of weeks instead of classes to make it easier for students to know where they are at in the course.

Will Kelly continue teaching online once COVID has run its course and classes can return to face to face? Well, yes, she hopes she can in some way. While grading assignments online is a lot of work, she has seen the benefits to her, for example, being able to check back on a student’s progress, and for students as well, having all her feedback in one place. But what really has convinced her is the learning she has observed in her online discussion forums – instead of being focused on how to get a B in class, students are more “focused on communicating clearly to other people and [responding] to what they’ve heard.” They can also go back to re-read those discussions when preparing for the next assignment, and “I don’t know why anyone would give that up!” Right now, Kelly’s vision for the future is to do exactly what she is doing now, except her Collaborate sessions will be face to face: do what needs to be done face to face, and what works online, online. But definitely some face to face because both Kelly and her students are yearning for that connection, of human faces and campus life. And that’s a nice hope for the future: the best of both worlds.

Camosun Faculty Story #1: Debra

Debra is a faculty member in the English Language Development (ELD) area here at Camosun College. I have had the privilege of working with her in bits and pieces over the years before COVID, but until last March/April, she was really only using PowerPoints and videos in the classroom, and using D2L minimally, mainly the News tool – “I was using that just to give them homework and make announcements.”

Imagine suddenly being faced with teaching completely online having not really used any online teaching tools before. It’s not a stretch of the imagination for many faculty members we in eLearning have been working with over the past almost a year. Debra herself “was certainly frightened of the technology and having to use the technology in such a different way…I didn’t have any idea how to use Collaborate, or I how to use most of the tools in D2L.” But, she overcame her fears and, coming back from vacation early, attended as many eLearning workshops as she could And most of all, she took the time to practice with the technologies, with her colleagues in ELD – peers supporting peers.

And it wasn’t only faculty supporting each other. Debra tells me that her first time teaching online went better than she expected because “[she] had done a lot of preparation and went in there believing [her students] were probably just as frightened of the experience as [she] was, and … [they] basically supported each other through the experience.” Like many faculty, Debra and her students were used to being in a face to face classroom where students “presume that you have a certain command of the situation.” But in this new world, “I knew that they really weren’t expecting me to have the same level of competence with the technology, and that took some of the pressure off.”

Debra says there wasn’t one moment that stood out for her during her first online teaching experience, but points to her students’ progress, as well as their positive feedback for her around the content and the delivery of the course as factors that made her feel good about the experience. In spite of everything, students were making good progress. And with regards to the fear of cheating which haunts many instructors during these online teaching times, she says that even though “I didn’t have the same control over their output, I did see them making progress. They couldn’t have cheated their way through to the outcomes that I saw at the end of the course. I did challenge them if I believed they cheated and I asked them to resubmit the work. But my main concerns were, are they turning up? Are they participating? Are they making progress? And that’s what I focus on.”

As for one thing she didn’t expect from the experience, Debra says she was surprised how much she enjoyed it. “Lock-down was a very isolating experience…so, having that contact with [students] every day, I felt less isolated … And I enjoyed the differences. It was a different experience and it was interesting and it was stimulating, and that’s why it was challenging.” And that challenge has, by pushing her out of her comfort zone (which is something familiar to her having done freelance work all over the world) reinvigorated how Debra feels about teaching. “I was afraid, but I decided to accept the challenge and I’m glad that I did.”

As for Debra’s vision for the future of her own teaching after everything that she’s learned over the past several months, she is currently preparing quizzes and other online materials, and planning to ”make much more use of technology than I did before…I might do a lot more online marking than I’ve done and I know I’ll make more use of technology.”

When I asked if she has any advice she would give colleagues, or any new faculty members who are suddenly having to teach online, Debra recalled an old joke: “How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time,” something a friend told her a few years ago when she faced other life-altering challenges. “I think that taking on a big challenge, that’s the only way to deal with it. If you try to envision the whole problem as one problem, the whole situation as one…it’s too much to deal with. But if you just break it down and take it a step at a time, it isn’t.” And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Supporting each other, and taking one step at a time.

Next for Debra, however, is a break. She finishes her Scheduled Development time at the end of February, and then will be off on vacation until she teaches this spring. This year I hope she gets a complete break and comes back refreshed, ready to meet her new students without panic, and with confidence.