Camosun Story #54: Lizzie

Lizzie is an Instructional Assistant (IA) and tutor for the English Language Development (ELD) program.  Her main role is to tutor ELD students, working with them on their coursework and understanding their textbooks, etc., but she also orients them to their program and helps them register and apply for funding.  Prior to March 2020, she and her colleagues provided this support exclusively in person, but when everything moved online, Lizzie says “we went completely online suddenly and had to adapt quickly to the technology that became our only way of communicating with students.”  And adapting to the technology meant that Lizzie and her colleagues had to gain access to the various tools bring used to support students, namely D2L and Collaborate.  Fortunately, D2L was already in place [*although I will note that not all instructors in ELD were using D2L at that time*] and instructors gave us permission to access their D2L courses so that we could help facilitate their classes.”  But students faced many challenges beyond learning online. “Many of our students are not technologically grounded and even before they set foot in their online classes, they had to register remotely, complete assessments, purchase their e-books, etc.”  

When the world shut down, everyone in ELD’s Assessment and Registrations areas, as well as the IAs, were all on deck getting students into their classes. “Then once they were in their classes, they had to learn how to study online. Many of them were relying on phones, and you can imagine how difficult it is to do a tutoring session or to conduct a class with students who were using their phones.  But even when laptops were made available for the students, they had to learn how to use those.”  But while initially many ELD students were not prepared for online learning, Lizzie said that learning how to use all this technology has some positive results for them.  “By the end of one semester, students had acquired new skills with technology and remote learning, and I think a certain independence came with that.” 

Lizzie’s previous experience with D2L was limited to supporting students who came to the Help Centre looking for help navigating their D2L course sites, so the learning curve at the beginning of the pandemic was steep.  “We realized quickly how useful it was for us as IAs to have access to D2L course sites. Because students often struggled to communicate what they’d been learning in class, we found it very helpful to be able to directly access the support material instructors were providing their students. Eventually, we also connected with textbook publishers so we could also access students’ e-textbooks as well.”  And then to interact with students, the IAs used Collaborate.  “We initially also used WC Online (which was already in place for upper-level courses), but we found that it was challenging for the lower ELDs students to learn yet another tool. So, since instructors were using D2L and Collaborate, it made more sense to meet all students in Collaborate.”  While the IAs are no longer supporting students online regularly, Lizzie says that she has met with at least one student who was unable to attend in-person classes for a few weeks, so she met with her in Collaborate which meant the student could keep up with her classes when otherwise she would have had to withdraw. 

Once Lizzie and her colleagues were set up with, and got to know, the technology, they still faced some challenges.  “We book 30-minute appointments with students, but those 30 minutes were often devoured just getting the technology to work, sometimes to the point where actual tutoring time was reduced to ten minutes or less.”  And once IAs were in Collaborate with students, they needed to learn how to “communicate effectively in order to help them, to show them how to look for their classes, or how to register for the next class. There were many obstacles just trying to convey information to students.”   

I asked Lizzie if the number of appointment requests increased during the pandemic, but she thought the number had actually decreased, saying “I think students were burned out. They’d been sitting in front of a computer all morning with an instructor. They had homework that they had to do. They had families running around in the background. And at the end of the day, they were shutting down. It would’ve been nice if we could have met with students after the kids had gone to bed, but that wasn’t possible.”  And Lizzie felt that same exhaustion. “At the end of the day, I was like a zombie. I think it does something to your neural synapses sitting in front of a computer all day.”  Lizzie is happy to be seeing students in-person again, “but I wouldn’t say we weren’t effective as tutors during the remote period. Some students really rose to the occasion and took full advantage of our services, but sadly there were many who were lost on the way.” 

I asked Lizzie if she felt there were any moments that stuck with her from when she was supporting students online.  “I think it was just having regular conversations with students when they didn’t want to be looking at the textbook.  I think that they had a strong relationship with their instructors, but they wanted some connection with a person other than an instructor. Many students were feeling so isolated (many had just arrived before the pandemic hit and were missing their families back home) so those moments of just talking about what they were doing over the course of the day were important for them.” 

When I asked what lessons Lizzie might have learned during the shift to online teaching, she, like many others I’ve talked to, said “I know that it can be done, that it is possible if we work as a team.” And not just within ELD, but also with CETL and others supporting the move online.  “I think before there was a sense that when you work in a specific area, you don’t really have any connection with the rest of the college – you exist in your own little world. But this opened up the world of Camosun.”  In addition, Lizzie says keeping a sense of humour was important, as well as being open to anything coming your way. “Things can change on a dime so go with it, be kind, and take your time. If you feel like you’ve had enough then just step away for a little bit – go outside for a walk or pet the poodle between appointments.” Wise words to make sure you look after yourself so you can help others, whether during a pandemic or not.  

When I asked Lizzie if the IAs would keep using the technology they learned, she said yes, especially D2L, saying “I never realized how vital it was to tutors. Now we create materials at the beginning of the term and ask instructors to post them on D2L, so students know who we are and how to access us.  We see the same students over and over again, but I know there are many more who just need a little push to come in, so if there’s more IA presence in D2L, then they’ll maybe reach out a bit more.” 

But she would like access to even more technology to support their in-person work as well. “When we did orientations before COVID, we would use a flip chart, and every semester the students would file in and we would point to the flip chart showing our hours, etc.  But this semester I was tired of the flip chart and ready to hit the 21st century. So, we set up a big screen TV (because we don’t have a projector in our orientation space), plugged in a laptop, and ran our orientation that way.” 

Lizzie had a few final words about the experience of the last two years, and where she is at now. First, she sees that students are now open to the possibilities remote learning can offer. “Even with all the obstacles they faced, I think many of them came to appreciate the flexibility of learning from home – they didn’t have to catch a bus or take two buses to get to class every day.” And finally, “there are many opportunities out there, and you have to be open to them, and there are people to support you and get you through pretty much anything.  All of us, all the colleges and universities, have been through the same things, and while we have lost a lot, we’ve also gained a lot.”    

Camosun Story #53: Bob P.

Bob is another one of my eLearning colleagues (like Wendy and the rest, amazing!)  He works in our Support area, focusing on our non-D2L tools, like Collaborate, Kaltura, ReadSpeaker, WordPress, and BBAlly, etc.  Bob is one of those quiet types, and you don’t always know how busy he is, so I was very interested in hearing his perspectives on our move online back in March 2020.

“One thing I find shocking right now, looking back, is how little I remember of the move and how long ago it feels now. I wish I had video of those last few hours when we were still here working in the office before we had to leave, with no preparation.” But as he began to think back, Bob echoed something his support colleague Wendy told me as well: “I thought it was fun.  That sudden 24/7 support where we were doing things we wouldn’t normally do – nonstop support. In hindsight, I’m surprised how well faculty and students adopted the technology, adapted to it, and were able to use it so substantially, because as you and I know many faculty did not use technology in their teaching prior to COVID.”

Bob found the move to completely online support fairly seamless, “maybe because most of the support I provided for people up until then was done over the phone or over e-mail. I liked getting on Collaborate or Teams to have conversations with people and go over things with them. Certainly, it’s a lot easier to do something over Teams than it is over email, which is a slow back and forth, back and forth.”  I asked Bob if he found himself wondering why we, in eLearning, had not picked up Teams as a tool to support our work until COVID hit.  “Yes, although I will admit that I was not a fan of Teams pre-COVID.  I didn’t like the thought of having Teams chat open all the time, so you’re not only answering emails, but answering Teams chat as well.”  But now, as with the rest of us, we can’t imagine going back to our old ways of supporting faculty.

And transitioning to working from home?  Well, as for most of us in eLearning, Bob says “I found it easy to do. I had a good setup at home, and we had a robust Internet connection, which helped a lot. For a lot of people, terrible home Internet was one of their major stumbling blocks.”  But, of course, working from home can blur the lines between work and life. “It was not possible to leave your work at work anymore.  Especially because of the volume of work we had.  You’re inundated with so many support calls you wake up in the middle of the night and think about one of the calls you forgot, realizing you hadn’t gotten back to the person, and you might jump up, turn on the computer and get back to them right then and there.”  While Bob prefers working from home, he admits that there are things that “are easier to do in person, for example quickly bouncing ideas off of others when you can stand around the office talking to everybody at once.”

One thing Bob found about supporting people through Teams was that “I felt/feel like I’ve met them. I’ve talked to them, I’ve seen them, they’ve seen me. I was surprised that, while it’s not the same as face-to-face contact, it gave you the sense that you had met the person and gotten to know them.” At the same time, “the disadvantage to only seeing people virtually is that if you go to someone’s office, you might sit down and look beside you and see something that you wouldn’t have seen on camera.  It might have been a poster and you ask ‘Oh, did you go to that concert?’ Or you have a discussion where you find out that they are a friend of a friend of yours.  The nuances of human existence can sometimes be limited by Teams and the field of view of the camera.”

When I asked Bob about what the biggest challenge he faced when we all moved online was, he paused for a few moments to consider.  “Frustration with Collaborate and the myriad problems people had with it initially and trying to figure out how to support them.  Although we in eLearning were familiar with it, we hadn’t yet had to teach an entire two-hour course using Collaborate.  And people were encountering multiple issues with their home device, their Internet connection, and especially with not understanding how to use Collaborate for teaching.  Sometimes I wished I could just go over to the person’s house and have them show me what they were doing.”  All of us in eLearning struggled similarly supporting the complex issues arising from synchronous teaching in Collaborate, but as Bob notes, “for us, we could handle that learning curve because it was our idea to adopt those technologies to begin with, but it was complex trying to figure out someone else’s problem when you’re also trying to figure out how the software works.”

One of the biggest rewards for him from the past couple of years, Bob reflected, was that our eLearning team, which “was a tight team going into COVID, became even tighter. It didn’t blow us apart and we became more supportive of ourselves as a group and around what we were doing and how we were handling things. I think a lot of people never have that in their work life, let alone during a pandemic.”  Bob also says that he didn’t resent the sudden increase in workload, “and I didn’t get the feeling that anyone in our group was feeling resentful – we just jumped right in, and it was a rewarding experience.” Strangely enough, however, transitioning back to “normal” has been challenging (and not just for Bob).  “Coming back to working in the office and supporting people when it’s not as high pressure is a little boring in comparison.”

When I asked Bob what advice he might have for a new support person coming into eLearning, especially during frantic times, he said “try and put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re helping. Try as best you can to see things from their perspective and get out of your own head. But I don’t think that’s any different than what I would say to a new in-person support person: listen to what people say about their problems.” Bob had a few more things to say about this perspective piece, which was so similar to the experiences of faculty teaching online for the first time, in that they were able to step into the shoes of their students much more easily than when they taught in-person:  “There were times I would have to go into someone’s Collaborate class and help either students or the instructor, like I would in other jobs, where I went into someone’s classroom to help them with technology challenges in the middle of a class with all these people watching you and time ticking away. So, while it wasn’t difficult to do the same thing online, it gave me a clearer perspective of what faculty and students were going through.”

If Bob has one regret from the past couple of years, it was wanting to record “certain support cases along with the details of what went on. I kept telling myself that I should do that, but I never did,” which is not surprising considering the pressure-cooker that was eLearning support back then.  But he is proud of the work he and his support colleagues did helping people with issues critical enough to make them want to throw in the towel.  “We did it in the end, and the people we helped were very thankful.”

Camosun Story #52: Wendy

Wendy is one of my amazing eLearning colleagues, and our D2L Administrator.  I wanted to hear her perspective on our move to online support back in March 2020 and the change of what that support looked like up to now (I will be posting her support colleague Bob’s story as well…) 

When we all moved online in March 2020, Wendy says she “wasn’t worried about working from home because everything I do is on a computer, and since everybody was going to be in the same boat, they’d know I was at home so they couldn’t drop in to see me.  But, as someone with extra risk factors, the biggest thing for me was fear. What if what if I get sick? What happens to my kids? What happens to work if I get sick?  That’s what I was focused on – I was watching the updates every day to see what was going to happen.”  But she also remembers feeling that “it was a very exciting time. I don’t mind when things are a little bit exciting because it’s invigorating, and it was an energizing period. It was also a chance to feel less like the unsung heroes keeping things running, instead being the ones keeping everyone teaching. I felt needed and very busy supporting folks who hadn’t really used our online tools before, or folks who had to ramp up their use in a big way. In addition, our team worked very well together, helping each other out which made it exciting rather than stressful because I knew the rest of the team had my back and vice versa.”   

Wendy found working from home both positive and challenging. “I got to look out the window at the birds and the neighbours, but over time started to feel disconnected because I’m used to water cooler talk, daily banter with Bob [Preston], connecting with instructors and students, and just being around people.”  While she prefers supporting people online, not ever seeing people in person was wearing.  “I felt quite lonely at times because my kids are only with me halftime, and work is a big part of my socialization.  In addition, it can sometimes be hard to stay motivated and focused on work when working from home.”  Work can also easily bleed into personal time, because when we first went online, we in eLearning were working sometimes 12-hour days meaning “you had to force yourself to get up out of your chair and take a break.”   

In March 2020, eLearning was short-staffed, especially considering the number of support requests that suddenly began to come in.  Wendy felt internal pressure to work overtime because “if I didn’t answer questions in a timely way, I knew what an impact that would have. So, I think the biggest challenge was the volume of work and the suddenness with which we went home. It would have been ideal to have a couple of weeks to plan and discuss strategies rather than suddenly one day we’re all working from home.”  While being short-staffed was a challenge for eLearning support, ironically another challenge appeared when we were given an extra support position: remotely training someone new in the middle of a pandemic. “Having trained a number of people for support positions over the years I find it easiest if they can start by watching me work to get a feel for the type of questions we receive and the ways to answer. Instead, I had to explain each scenario and trust that the person was receiving and retaining it. I also think that building rapport with somebody is hard until you’ve met in person a few times. And with the work we do, it’s important to feel connected and trusted as co-workers.” 

Moving support online meant ditching the office phone and moving to a soft (computer) phone, but then moving away from phone and email and ultimately to our new ticketing system.  But the big player for those of us supporting faculty was Teams.  “With Teams we were able to instantly communicate with folks and share a screen which has enhanced our ability to help people. We can see what they’re looking at instead of trying to talk them through issues without seeing what they are doing which has always been a challenge for technical support.”  We are hoping that students can have access to Teams in the future as that will really change how we support them as well.  Wendy noted though that in her experience, in-person support will likely still be a first choice for many students and faculty.  But during COVID, when “that option was taken away, we still provided timely support, but by using email and then our ticketing system we were able take more time to review support requests and get back to people with a fuller answer than we may have when answering the phone.  And we haven’t shifted back too much.”  

Over time, we moved from that more reactive support to more proactive (as demand decreased) but that was challenging in itself – when we moved “from a frenetic pace to more normal it was hard to shift back, especially when working at home.”  Since we’ve come back to some in-person hours, Wendy and her colleagues have kept the online service model (using Teams and the ticketing system) they’ve developed.  But they find that now, after everyone has been using our online tools for a couple of years, “we’re getting fewer of those basic questions we used to get from brand new or inexperienced users. The bulk of the questions now come from faculty using the tools at a deeper level. They’re not just putting their syllabus or some content online, they’re actually using the tools, and in variety of ways.” 

When I asked Wendy about rewards she might have found over the past few years, I had to smile when she said “personally, the ability to foster cats was amazing.  I was at home and could have little kitties running around which was fantastic.”  She also appreciated being able to spend more time with her kids – “they’d come home from school, and I’d be there, although it was a little hard sometimes to remind them that I was working and not available. As much as I was disconnected from co-workers, I had more connection with friends and family.”  And finally, Wendy reminded me about the NISOD Excellence Award eLearning received back in February 2021 (which I had completely forgotten about!)  “That NISOD award was pretty cool. It felt neat to be recognised in CamNews.  Most of the recognition I receive is from individual saying, thanks you’re a lifesaver, but that wider acknowledgement meant a lot.”  

With regards to work, Wendy says “I love the shift in workshop delivery that happened when everything went online.  The idea of standing in front of a large group is unpleasant for me but being part of a Teams workshop feels easy.  I joined in on many workshops when they were online, sometimes to learn, but also to contribute and help the main presenter, and I really enjoyed the experience.  I feel like attendance was a bit better, too, with people able to attend from wherever they were. Regardless of the future I hope we keep offering meetings and workshops this way. 

When I asked Wendy what lessons she might take away from the past couple of years, she reflected on another challenge of working from home.  “It’s important to not take your mobility for granted.  Working from home meant I was eight feet from the bathroom, eight feet from the kitchen, and I didn’t move for a year and a half. I’m still fighting my way back to a level of fitness to keep myself healthy. So now when I’m working from home, I make a point of taking breaks. I’ll take the garbage out or walk a lap of the parking lot or just something to get myself moving.”  And also, make sure your home office setup is well organized and ergonomic.  And, of course, “we say it over and over – we can do our work remotely. Having two campus locations doesn’t have to be a problem and we don’t have to all travel to one place to have a productive meeting.” 

Wendy had some advice for people having to support faculty and students remotely. “I find our new ticketing system to be very helpful. It’s important to have a good system for receiving support requests, assigning them, and marking them.”  in addition, make time to connect and socialize with your colleagues. “Bob and Kailin and I have a weekly check-in because we don’t physically all cross paths.  That way we have a half hour every week to chat about anything that’s come up, and also to talk about our weekends etc., because I think it makes for a better working environment if you can connect with your colleagues on a personal level too.  As for advice to her past self, Wendy says “I would tell myself to relax a bit and not be so afraid of getting sick, and I would remind myself more that I didn’t create the problem – everyone having to go online wasn’t my fault. I took ownership of more than I probably should have in terms of trying to fix things out of my control.”   

Finally, Wendy related to me something she heard one of our newer colleagues say.  “She said that we have one of the best departments at Camosun in terms of how we interact with and support each other, collaborate, just get along.  And I think the way we work as a team was crucial over the past two and a half years. I don’t think we all would have survived this if we didn’t work so cohesively. I’m really thankful that we did work so well together, and we have such a great group because that’s important.”  Wendy, it’s been a pleasure working with you over the past 8 ½ years, and I look forward to many more! 

Camosun Story #51: Martha

Martha is the Chair of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) – my Chair – and is also an Educational Developer in the Faculty Development unit of CETL. She also taught for many years in the Community, Family, and Child Studies Program.

I asked Martha what it was like for her when we all moved online in March 2020.  “One thing that stands out for me is how we suddenly all needed to know how to use Teams, and I remember diving in deeply to learn how it worked.  While it was a steep learning curve, I realized that it would be our primary tool for communicating with each other in CETL, and with other faculty. Then I began thinking about all the other ways that we could use Teams as a space for meeting and sharing resources.”  Martha also realized that because CETL was deluged with messages from panicked faculty looking for help with teaching and assessing online, she “took a crash course on using the LibGuides [the Research Guides in the Library]. We focused on collaborating to find and vet resources so we could build them on the LibGuides. I spent a lot of my time learning those tools and collaborating within CETL and with the librarians.”  Collaboration went beyond Camosun as well.  Martha remembers a site developed by STLHE (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) which shared resources related to teaching and learning online from across Canada. It “became an important place to check-in and find what else was going on, what other people were doing, and then sharing that to our Camosun community.”

During this initial frenetic time, Martha said “I remember feeling excited, and there was this sense that we were all in the same boat together.  I was amazed at how everybody rose to the occasion; we were getting things done as opposed to meeting to talk about planning to get things done. There was a sense of immediacy, taking action, and collaboration.”  I asked how she felt about this lack of time for planning (post-secondary institutions can be notorious for endless planning and discussions before any action is taken – certainly not what was happening back in March 2020).  “I tend to be action oriented; I recognize that everything is always a work in progress and will never be perfect. I would rather create something, get feedback, keep working on it, have it evolve, and keep adding to it. So, this way of working fit with my style.”

Of course, there were challenges.  “I’ve never been a techie, but I’m always willing to try new things, and am not afraid of technology. I was happy to get in there and muck about and give it a try, which was good because there was no choice. I admit, however, I felt frustrated with the technology because as I learned more about Teams, for example, I discovered that there were some things that it couldn’t do that I thought it should be able to do.  So, I have become more familiar with the imperfections of technology – that it’s not going to save the world, but it’s a ‘good enough’ tool for so many things.”  Of course, the technology was not the only barrier to Martha doing some of the things she wanted to do.  “One of my original visions for using Teams was to support the communities of practice with things like resource sharing and chats.  But faculty were so busy, they didn’t necessarily want to check in on Teams outside of the scheduled meetings, so that hasn’t been utilized to the full extent of how I imagined it. I haven’t given up on it yet though – I still think we could be doing more with Teams; I just haven’t quite figured out how to take it to that next level.” And maybe once people are a little less fatigued from the past couple of years, Martha will find a way!

But Martha prefers to think of challenges as opportunities.  “For example, working from home seemed like a challenge initially, but it turns out I flourished working from home. The two-campus issue evaporated and became a non-issue both for our team working together and for providing support to faculty on two campuses. The challenge of learning new technology immediately became an opportunity because attendance at workshops and communities of practice increased exponentially, not just for people desperately needing to learn new tools, but for people needing to connect with each other in community.”  It’s worth noting that these online workshops and communities of practice continue – some of them much more robustly than they were pre-COVID.

As someone who was a classroom instructor, but now provides learning opportunities and support to classroom instructors, Martha says she “didn’t feel as put on-the-spot compared to faculty using technology for the first time with a classroom full of students. They’ve been out there, in the fire, learning from their mistakes in the moment. And from what I hear, a lot of them have advanced so far teaching online, I feel a little bit left behind.  But one positive outcome from what we have provided in CETL is a recognition that peer-to-peer support and learning is incredibly valuable. What faculty can now teach each other is phenomenal because they have that on-the-ground experience to share.  I feel that an important role I can play through CETL is building more of those opportunities for them to connect with each other.”  In addition to supporting interdisciplinary peer-to-peer connection and learning, Martha also sees a role for CETL to take what we hear from faculty and push those messages up so that college leadership hears what’s going on. “We have this wonderful opportunity to be involved in community conversations with faculty on a regular basis, hearing so many different perspectives, so it’s important for us to amplify those voices any chance we get.”

The amplification of cross-discipline conversations is one reward from the past two years. Ironically, another benefit Martha sees, is “the recognition that mental health and well-being is something we all need to pay attention to, for both employees and students, beyond the pandemic times.” And related to this, faculty thinking more about creating community in their classrooms.  “Faculty came to realize that they had to focus on what was most important for their courses, and that creating a sense of belonging for students was fundamental for their success.”  Creating community in the classroom was always important, but “it may have been taken for granted before, whereas when things moved online, faculty had to be more intentional about building community and engagement.” That’s one of those silver linings that came out of the past two years: even when teaching in-person, it’s worth spending time on and being intentional creating those classroom communities.

Martha noted that another interesting conversation that came out of the past two years was around assessments, and specifically online assessments.  “There was a bit of a panic around cheating, looking at how faculty could tighten up online exams, using online proctoring, etc.  Then there was some recognition that going in that direction means you’re chasing something you’ll never catch.  So, we worked with faculty to explore other ways of assessing, and I think we have had a good response shifting from thinking punitively to more creatively in terms of assessment. But as we return to in-person teaching and learning, we need to consider how we can continue to build on creative assessment and make it part of what we do.”

Like many of us in CETL, Martha is “concerned we will lose the opportunity for creativity that opened up through the chaos of the past two years. Now there seems to be a sense of shutting down the creativity we had embraced. I recognize there’s a balance – you don’t want total chaos all the time and you need to have some boundaries, but you also need to have a willingness to take risks. I’m concerned that things are getting shut down under the guise of returning to normal. Even though we’re in a time of financial constraint post pandemic, going back is not the only solution to our problems.”  And we need to accept that students are going to have different expectations of us as faculty, and as an institution.  “Why would a student come to an in-person class if they don’t have to? If students have competing commitments for their time, there needs to be a really good reason for them to come in-person, and we need to figure out what that is – what about the in-person classroom is an enrichment for them?”

Martha has some words of wisdom to leave us with, reflecting on the past few years, at where we are now, and what our future might hold. For the institutions: “We need to keep trusting our collective wisdom and expertise and trusting each other. Individually we’re not responsible to solve it all, but we each can just do our own little piece.  We’ve learned that we can do it over the past two years and we’re still standing.”  And with regards to CETL: “For the past couple of years we’ve known what our work is and what we need to accomplish. But what’s next is not clear. I think for me, that means we need to revisit and refocus on what our values and priorities are, what’s most important. Our values have to drive our work and be at the core of what we do.”

Camosun Story #50: Tia

Tia is a Student Navigator at Camosun.  If you didn’t know it, there are two Student Navigators in the School of Access (as part of the Assessment Centre), and they do amazing work!  Tia tells me that Student Navigators “help students who have difficulty working through Camosun’s processes or finding information. Sometimes they need help with admissions, registration, financial aid, accommodations, or counseling, myCamosun and our website. They could be a new student, a registered student, or somebody who has been here with us upgrading, or taking College level programs.  We help students navigate to all the college resources and sort out myCamosun.”  What is important to Tia is that “students don’t have to wait.  We answer our phones and texts and get right back to students, where other service departments are often too busy or short-staffed to do this.”  What I liked most was Tia’s description of how Student Navigators build strong and lasting relationships with the students they support.  For example, “I’m working with students in their second or third year of a business degree, students who I might have helped get into Sheet Metal eight years ago, so we have a connection. They know they can text me and get a quick answer. They’ve got a connection to somebody at Camosun.” 

I asked Tia what it was like for her back in March 2020 when we all suddenly moved to remote work.  “When we were sent home, I grabbed a laptop from IT and picked up a second monitor. Then I asked for a cell phone because we spend a lot of time on the phone with students. Our amazing admin team in the school of access made all this happen almost seamlessly.”  Tia also discovered an unanticipated benefit from moving support online: “for the first time in years, I felt safe. We work with a lot of people who aren’t necessarily ready to be at Camosun, and suddenly I felt I could deal with anybody because I was safe at home behind the screen.”  She also echoed what I am sure resonates with many others: “I’ve worked at the college for 32 years and I have never been that busy.” But she told me the main source of the increased demand was for upgrading which “skyrocketed with people stuck at home, wanting to finally get their high school diploma.” 

Unlike many faculty, Tia didn’t have to adapt to new online systems to communicate with students – she used email, phone, and texting, commenting on how much young people like to text.  For Tia it was simply about communicating.  Communicating with the student, with registration, with departments, and about being available and “confirming to the student that we are here. You can’t walk in and see us, but we’re here for you. And making sure, even if you didn’t have the answer, you always got back to a student, letting them know when they could expect to hear from you again.”  Tia said that the average phone call with a student was around 45 minutes because they had so many questions, but it was easier to give each student complete attention “because I wasn’t trying to serve anybody else. I wasn’t having to get up and get a key for somebody or get somebody the stapler or load the photocopier with paper. My focus was totally on that student or their parent.”  

Unfortunately, Tia notes that we did lose some students during that time online, “those students that looking for a day program, who might come into the Help Centre to spend the day working on the computer puttering away at some upgrading. We lost a lot of those students because they didn’t understand how to pick up a laptop or a WIFI hotspot, and then didn’t have anybody at home to help them with that laptop.”  But Tia did say that those students are beginning to come back, although “we don’t have the same amount to face to face we used to – they’re coming back but it’s different.” 

Tia mentioned a couple of challenges to me which speak to the complex world post-secondary institutions now find themselves: first, not enough services going back to previous in-person availability. For example, services like Financial Aid (currently only at Interurban) and Registration (currently only at Lansdowne) now have limited in-person hours for students because they have moved much of their service online, which is great for some students but can be challenging for others. “Now if students need Admissions and are at Lansdowne, they have to use an iPad to talk to Admissions at Interurban” which can be challenging if the student is having a financial conversation in a space where others can hear them.  We have to remember those students taking courses in the evening, those with jobs that don’t allow them to take breaks during limited registration hours to talk to someone, students who find using technology challenging (for example scanning documents), or students who are new and unsure of how to navigate Camosun’s systems.  That ability to walk in and talk to someone in person is something we probably don’t want to lose. 

As for the second challenge, there seems to be a disconnect between what students are wanting and needing for online courses, and what some Schools are adding as options.  Because of a reluctance to offer high-school equivalent math and science courses online, Tia has found herself having to send students to other institutions where they can take those courses in a mode that works with their busy lives.  “We’re asking a student to come to Lansdowne five days a week, two hours a day to get a Math 12 course. And many of these are high achieving students – they know what they need and are just trying to get admission requirements out of the way so they can take our programs like Nursing, Sonography, Radiography, etc.”  One thing we need to remember as a college now is that not only do many potential (and existing) students have jobs and families, and many don’t live in Victoria anymore and we will lose (and have likely already lost) those students if we can’t find ways to be more flexible. 

One other challenge Tia mentioned was how assessment for entry to Camosun changed when we all moved online. “Students used to do their assessments in person, but we couldn’t do that anymore and we didn’t know when or if we could move back to in-person.  The folks in Assessment worked really hard and brought in Examity (an American company) to support online assessments, but students suddenly had to pay $25 US to take a Math or English assessment.” In addition, at the beginning there were a lot of challenges with the system (for example how the booking system worked – students would book time to receive a voucher which they used on the Examity website to book the time for their assessment…confusing)!   But again, the Assessment Centre group persevered to make the process clearer. “We fielded many, many calls and questions from panicked students, but now the system is smooth, and students have the choice to come to campus or complete their assessment online. The staff in the Assessment Center are brilliant.” 

Through all the challenges, Tia has found some rewards.  “For me, it’s the relationships we’ve built with Financial Aid, Admissions, and Registration – I really feel like we’re working as a team. While there was reluctance to have Student Navigators in the beginning, now we have a good relationship, we see real value in what everyone is doing, and we are working well for the betterment of the student. That is a huge win for me.”  And associated with this is that by moving a lot of support away from in-person, we “got rid of a lot of paperwork. We used to ask a student to fill out a piece of paper and take it to their instructor to sign it so that they could get into a class after the add drop date. The students were running all over the place with this piece of paper, but they were intimidated to ask an instructor. So now I can just talk to the instructor and ask them to send Registration an e-mail giving permission and boom, it’s done. There’s no paperwork and the student hasn’t had all that stress.” Another win that is being kept moving forward.  

Tia works hard to advocate for students, and one of the lessons learned from the past couple of years is that if you keep advocating you can make changes that better support students trying to get into Camosun. I would add that if you listen to students, you can find new ways of doing things – ways that might push you out of your comfort zone or challenge existing systems, but that address student needs. “If we’re going to survive as an institution, we need to listen to our customers. For example, an evening course shouldn’t start at 4:00PM – an evening class shouldn’t start until at least 6:00PM. Especially if you’re asking them to come to campus.  If this is a student who leaves work at five o’clock in Langford and is supposed to be an evening class at 4:00pm, it won’t work for them.  Don’t have a Biology class that has students on-campus two days a week at 9:30AM, and two days a week at 2:30PM. Who can fit that into their schedule?  We need to work more at being student focussed.”  To which I would reiterate Tia’s earlier points about services and online course offerings.   

Tia’s advice for anyone finding themselves pivoting to online support services?  “Just help each other. If someone asks you questions, do whatever you can to help them succeed in their job.  I’m all about the sharing.  If you learn how to use something, show somebody else. That’s my big takeaway, especially when we were working remotely without those coffee room chats. Just share information, attend workshops where you can, and hear other people’s perspectives. And be patient, be kind with each other, and have confidence that you will learn it, even if you might not get it today.”  

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!

Camosun Faculty Story #48: A conversation with Monique and Deidre about redesigning the BEST Program

In the midst of the amazing discussions I have been having with faculty over the past year and a bit, I was hearing stories of the BEST (Building Employment Success for Tomorrow) Certificate program at Camosun College, a seven-week tuition-free program.  You may remember BEST from reading Diane G’s and Val’s stories – both faculty members in the program (and we mustn’t forget their third member, Allyson, the Instructional Assistant for BEST.)  Well, I knew from previous conversations with colleagues that the BEST program had gone through a program review right before the pandemic hit, and I wanted to hear from Monique (a fellow Instructional Designer in eLearning) and Deidre (an Educational Developer in the Curriculum Development and Program Renewal unit) about their experience with the BEST program review.  Now, full disclosure: I interviewed Deidre and Monique quite some time ago, and since then the BEST program has been “discontinued,” but not really – it will be reappearing under the name Education and Career Planning Certificate Program soon, but with the same amazing faculty and dedication to meeting learners where they are at.  

And meeting learners’ needs led to discussions around how best to offer the program: continue with in-person or explore blended and online modes, and online became a strong contender.  Deidre and Monique recalled that the impetus for taking the BEST program online came from a desire to reach more people.  “The conversation sparked out of a desire to drive up enrollment – could it be offered in a different delivery format that would encourage people who were working, etc.  They were looking at ways to reach more people because it’s the only program of its type.” 

Of course, moving a program online can be met with trepidation and BEST was no exception.  “There was real fear about going online because the program is community-based and takes a very personalized approach, including one-on-one coaching.” But the BEST faculty were curious and keen to explore what opportunities online might bring. As the program review started, “we were starting to develop online components, not necessarily for full online delivery, but more of a gentle start helping them to become receptive to a hybrid approach.”  But then, March 2020 hit and any options involving in-person instruction flew out the window. 

Luckily, as noted, the BEST group had already begun to develop online materials, and in addition an already vetted open resource was available through BCcampus.  But while content wasn’t much of an issue, Monique told me that “the challenge was that each module of the program generated its own D2L course with students enrolled in each of those courses discretely. So, we had to merge those courses right away, then fit them into a larger framework within D2L.”  Rebuilding the courses into one whole was an overwhelming task within the sudden shift to online, but the team jumped in and started working.  “We merged the courses and they worked on a course map to guide students through the online materials.  Then because it’s such a short program, they surveyed students every Friday about how they were experiencing the program, and every week we would meet and tweak the program.  Then for each following iteration of the full program we would make more substantive fixes.”  And those weekly meetings continued for the duration of the pandemic.  Finally, last June, they were able to take a breath and redevelop the program into a week-by-week structure to make it easier for students to navigate in the online format. 

What Monique and Deidre really wanted to emphasize for me was the team effort of the BEST group.  “They divided and conquered and were open with each other, always giving constructive feedback. I would say they were high performing. It was nice because Allyson is very technical, so she understood the need for a structure and version control, while Diane really grabs onto the vision of the program, and Val is the cheerleader.” 

Once BEST settled into its new online mode, the program review process had to be picked up again, which happened in May 2020.  At that point, Deidre says, “they had to decide whether to articulate at the provincial level which had implications for the learning outcomes. There was discussion about how to structure the program and we landed on four courses (there used to be five) which felt better in the overall structure. Then we spent a lot of time redeveloping the learning outcomes and identifying which courses they wanted to include.”  And by May, the group knew that students were embracing their online instruction, which helped inform the program review going forward. 

But while BEST emerged as a seven-week course with four modules, the way students complete the program is not by doing one module at a time, but by working on all four modules simultaneously.  As Monique put it “if you’re doing labor market research, you’re doing it for the full seven weeks, not just in two weeks. The content all needed to be integrated as a kind of spiraling curriculum.”  And as Deidre pointed out, “BEST isn’t a typical program in the Camosun sense of the word, and while I think we ended in a good place, it was not a linear process to get there.”  

One of the things that has made the revision of BEST a success is the support from leadership, specifically the Dean and Associate Dean of the School of Access.  “All the pieces were aligned going through the program review cycle – in addition to Curriculum Development, they brought eLearning in at the beginning of the review process and had leadership behind them all the way. They ended up with the right people on the team.” 

So now, we have a tuition-free, seven-week program with four discreet modules, operating as one course using open educational resources, and taught entirely online. But Deidre reminded me that “they’re not teaching a subject; they’re teaching people confidence building and self-belief.  They’re teaching about growth mindset and all those intangible things like self-leadership. I think it’s amazing that that they’re able to build this community online in a safe place for people to share and grow.” And in only seven weeks. In addition, Monique adds that the BEST team “worked to Indigenize the curriculum as they went. Because the Indigenous ways of learning are how you build community, representing the core values of the program which is about developing from the inside out and building community where everyone has a story and grows at their own pace.”  

Monique and Deidre reflect that the biggest reason BEST was challenging to put online was this emphasis on building community along with the personalised development piece, the pieces that make BEST a transformational and life-changing program for students.  But by taking a risk, BEST has opened its doors to many more students than it could have reached by remaining a solely in-person program.  Deidre says “The BEST team jumped off the boat into deep water and they swam. They more than just swam; they did the butterfly. They didn’t just dogpaddle, they were doing backflips off the high diving board.”  Their dedication to the BEST program’s underlying principles, to trusting in others to guide them into the online environment, as well as working with students to get feedback on what was working and what wasn’t as they trialed the online course, has created a solid foundation for success.  

Camosun Faculty Story #47: Sue

Sue is an instructional designer and one of my colleagues in eLearning (part of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) at Camosun.  I wanted to speak to Sue so she could tell me, and you, about her experiences supporting faculty when we all moved to online teaching in March 2020.  On a personal note, going back in time to when we in eLearning were working long hours helping faculty and students navigate this new world brought back feelings not just of exhaustion but also of the excitement we felt as our faculty colleagues began to see first-hand the benefits of online teaching, something we have known for years.   

One of Sue’s passions is accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  In fact, she was a co-author (2015) of the BCcampus Accessibility Toolkit.  Sue tells me that while eLearning had offered some workshops on accessible design and had some accessibility tools available in D2L (namely ReadSpeaker) prior to March 2020, when everything moved online “challenges around accessibility hit people like a brick wall and I think we had one of our greatest teachable moments possible for digital accessibility.  We saw more awareness around issues students were having enhanced by the fact that faculty themselves didn’t have the right infrastructure to teach online.  That shared lived experience, of a sudden lack of access impeding your ability to do something, well you can’t manufacturer that.”   

Sue also reminded me that we had enabled another online accessibility tool just prior to the pandemic, BBAlly (aka Ally) which we turned on across D2L in June 2020.  “We were barely through wrapping up the pivot term when we turned BBAlly on across the system and as a result, I have had way more interest in accessibility workshops and learning about UDL skills since 2020.” But the accessibility tools we had incorporated into our D2L system turned out to have a broader impact, beyond, for example, simply converting text-to-speech.  “We learned that Textaid was also a great asset for our language programs. Faculty teaching Japanese, Spanish, and Korean were able to use TextAid to support some spoken and written assessments that they had struggled to do even before COVID.” 

In addition to accessibility tools, our streaming media service, Kaltura, had only been enabled for a year or so and “we went from barely having started to use it to an exponential production of videos, which quickly shone a light on the poor quality of auto-captioning in services like these. While many faculty recognized that this bad video captioning needed to be fixed and wanted to do that work, they were overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of tears, by the work this added to their already heavy load. That was the motivation to rattle the cage for some professional captioning support.”  And now, we have access to a captioning service, REV, to assist faculty with their video captions in Kaltura.   And as Sue notes again, good video captions are not just useful for people with hearing impairments.  “You can watch videos in locations where you have no sound capabilities, students have access to a searchable transcript for study purposes, etc.”  

In terms of assessment, Sue recalls faculty struggling with assessment methods that would not work in a fully online environment.  Instead, they needed to ask “what if I provided more options for students to be able to complete the assignment? What if instead of a time-based test it was a take-home exam? Some Faculty were looking at their assessments with fresh eyes for the first time in years. Coming up with alternate assessments exemplifies UDL by exploring flexibility in the way we get students to show they’re engaged.  I think that this focus on alternative assessments, in one of the biggest shifts to UDL we’ve seen.” 

While Sue wonders how much less stressful the move to online teaching would have been if content had been built with accessibility and UDL in mind, she says, “there is no going back from the spotlight on accessibility and the awareness that’s been developed around the tools to support accessible design. I think we raised the baseline a bit, and while we’re still going to have new people who are not there yet, I’m confident that most faculty can, and will, use these tools without the trepidation they may have had before.”  

When talking a bit about rewards Sue has seen over the past two years, she tells me “I am more aware of the multi-dimensional challenges each individual student is dealing with because I’m dealing with them more myself too.” This also means that while she had to press pause on the UDLProject she was working on pre-COVID, “these past two years have provided much additional material for that project that I couldn’t have even imagined.” And building from that awareness of what overwhelmed students were experiencing, well she found herself supporting faculty who were similarly overwhelmed from trying to support those students. “I had to meet faculty members where they were at, trying to make things work for that individual in the moment realizing they were just keeping their heads above water. So, if I can help you to achieve this thing that’s more important than even you know at this moment, let alone how you would do it in the future, well, like any new language you learn the vocabulary, then you put the words together, and then start to build sentences. When you talk about accessibility and UDL, you can find a point of entry and then build thoughtfully from there. I think the way we were all meeting faculty where they were at was in many ways a UDL model of support.” 

If there was one shining moment for Sue, “I think coming out of this we have forged a tighter bond with our colleagues in the Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL) and that we now have the foundations from which we can continue to build a model of collaboration in our teaching and learning community. We are all committed to creating good online learning experiences for students and faculty, and because we work with so many different groups, we’re in a position to influence change. So having CAL be more of a partner, for me, that’s amazing and is a model other Post-Secondary Education institutions should take note of.”  And what really resonated for me was Sue’s comment that, as a result of increasing online options at the college, “we’re a three-campus college now and we in eLearning sit mostly on this third campus. We need to make sure that we are supporting students and faculty fulsomely and accessibly in this third campus environment.”   

When I asked Sue what some of her biggest lessons learned over the past two years were, she tells me “What I have gotten out of the past couple of years is confidence that in our team we have a range of skills and experience.  There are so many skills we need to be current with: technologies, pedagogy, inclusive education, accessibility, decolonization, open education, etc., that each of us alone can’t possibly know it all.  So, it’s a huge asset to have, say, a colleague who is deeply focused and committed to bringing open education practices, examples, and opportunities to the college. I can both participate in those and continue to develop my expertise so I can work with faculty, but I don’t have to be the expert in everything to recognize expertise and to draw on it.” 

Advice Sue has for anyone faced with moving to online teaching echoes what so many other faculty have said:  “Work with peers, connect with folks who have been where you are, so you are not recreating the wheel, try something small and build your confidence in lower stakes moments, and don’t feel afraid to reach out and borrow ideas from people.” We reflected a bit on how learning to teach online is similar to training for a marathon: you do it gradually, upping your mileage as you go.  “Of course, March 2020 was like running a marathon with no training, multiple times.  But in normal times, take it slow.  Oh, and get a good chair at home for all your online classes and meetings!” 

I wanted to end with Sue’s reflection on where she feels we, as eLearning and CETL, are now as a team. “We as a unit no longer face concerns about feeling left out because of being on different campuses, because we have a more universal place for us and faculty we work with, in this new, third campus.  I also have deeper relationships with faculty, some of whom I had worked with very little before, and I feel like I have a much deeper awareness of what’s going on in different parts the college than I ever did before. Even amongst our CETL community I feel like our communication and collaboration is stronger.” Our third campus has enabled and supported this enrichment, so we need to respect and nurture it going forward. 

Camosun Faculty Story #46: Rob

As you may have noticed, I’ve been posting a few stories from faculty talking about their experiences of moving suddenly to online teaching back in March 2020.  But teaching online was not new and uncharted territory to all faculty teaching at Camosun.  Today I bring you some highlights from an interview I had with Rob, whose training company has partnered with Camosun for the past 10 years to deliver a Project Management Certificate program through Contract Training.  Rob has a degree in Adult Education, and is also a fellow instructional designer, and it was a lot of fun talking to him about his work as both an instructor and an ID. 

Rob and his instructors “teach everything from technical skills to interpersonal skills, to how to think at a strategic level,” and they teach using the full spectrum of modes, from fully in-person to fully online asynchronous, and everything in between.  Rob himself “started off designing and developing computer-based training, electronic performance support systems, and what we used to call web-based training back in 1994/5. My Master’s specialty was in online learning and performance, and I’ve also been designing and developing curriculum for online delivery for over 25 years.”  I found myself realizing that I have also been working in online learning design for the same amount of time as Rob, and we reflected on how much has changed since when we started this work back in the nineties. “It’s gone from very text-heavy, to some videos and audio, to full multimedia with the ability to focus more on tailoring the type of instruction to the knowledge or skill to be developed. We use video for more prescriptive processes and skills and reading to build a more fundamental knowledge base, all while using asynchronous approaches to provide flexibility in the delivery, and synchronous interaction to provide direct feedback to students. So, it’s a much more robust environment today compared to where we initially started.” 

I asked Rob what he thought of the concern cropping up since COVID forced almost all education online, that online learning is lesser quality than in person (which, as IDs, we had hoped had been put to rest years ago.)  He explained that we first need to move beyond our biases, that is “the propensity for adult learners to fall back into their historically established learning environment. Every term, I still have students telling me they prefer in-person learning, but then they tell me they had more interaction in our online environment than they have ever had in a classroom.”  Thinking about why that is, Rob reflected that “when they’re in the classroom, they’re not talking to other students, but are focused on the instructor-led approach that typifies many classrooms, and they often think that online learning is just watching videos and reading. What they don’t understand is the instructional design that’s associated with developing instructionally-sound curriculum.” Most information is out there on the Internet, but learning is not just about finding information. “What students don’t see is the preparation, activity design, testing, and modification that goes into building an engaging online course,” and our job as instructional designers is to help faculty understand how instructional designers, curriculum developers and technology support staff can help them create those courses (something we didn’t necessarily have time for when courses moved so suddenly online in 2020.) 

When talking a little bit about that design for engagement, Rob says “the first thing we do is establish contact with students. The moment we engage with them to keep them on track they realize that they are being supported, that their instructor is there to work with them, and that they are not just one of 500 students that the instructor doesn’t know. The second is to build in collaboration as one of the requirements and teach them why collaboration is important in the learning process, building it as a bonus for them so if they collaborate more, they will learn more.”  Remembering Rob’s earlier point, that adult learners tend to want to learn the way they have in the past, all this engagement and collaboration sometimes “requires a period of cultural change for them to feel like they’re being supported, to build up to an interactive dynamic between students and instructor.” And that’s where that huge investment in up-front work to contact students, to set expectations, to build collaboration, and to follow-up pays off: when students start to engage. 

I wanted to see if Rob had noticed an uptake in his online courses post-COVID and was a bit surprised when he said that while there was a jump in enrolment at the beginning of the pandemic, but “by September 2021, a year and a half in, we saw a substantial drop in enrolment.  While we are still studying why it happened, one of the things we identified through feedback was that people were tired of meeting and learning online,” something I am sure many people reading this can identify with. This past term, enrolments are back up, but Rob tells me he will “need a longer period of time to study if this fatigue might have an effect long-term.  I think it’s been beneficial for people to have had the experience through the pandemic of recognizing that it is possible to engage, to have interactivity, and to learn online.”  I know I hope faculty and students, once fatigue fades, will embrace more online teaching and learning now that they know what is possible. 

When I asked Rob about some of the rewards he’s experienced teaching online all these years, he says “I think it’s difficult to separate the rewards from teaching online from the rewards from teaching in general. From my perspective as an adult educator, it’s about helping adults learn. The reward I get from helping an adult learn, whether it’s online or in the classroom, is the emotional satisfaction of seeing someone develop a skill or knowledge, and to feel that tingle up the back of your neck when they get it. I think teaching online means that I’m able to help people that might not be able to access a course, because of timing or geography or personal situation. And I think the greatest reward is that online teaching broadens out accessibility to a subject that I’m passionate about.” 

In addition, Rob has heard from students that being able to work with people from all over the world through an online class is hugely beneficial and rewarding.  “Students have said that interacting with people who are completely outside their bubble has been very valuable to them because they never would’ve experienced the people that they’re interacting with outside their local area. It gives them access to a new perspective and the ability to share and learn from each other that they wouldn’t get in a traditional classroom.” Often as a result of that greater diversity, Rob says there is more interaction in the online classroom, “students are intermingling with people with whom they may never have spoken if they were in a classroom, because you tend to gravitate towards the person sitting next to you. But when you’re online, you can establish relationships with anybody and everybody because you have that flexibility.” 

I asked Rob what kind of advice he gives instructors teaching online for the first time, and he said “I want them reach out to the students more because I think one of the biggest challenges is that, while students have a reason for showing up at that course, they can also feel alone in the online environment. If instructors reach out to students and create a relationship with them, it’ll be better for the students because they’ll see there’s somebody there. It’s not just a computer teaching them, but there’s actually a flesh and blood person behind it.”  And in addition, Rob wants his instructors to see that teaching online does not have to be hard.  “Start by recording a question-and-answer session – that’s a learning opportunity.  Then when we use technology like collaborative document creation, that collaborative document can become instruction – that can become a reusable tool for future instruction. We might be building the plane while it flies, but that course material can be reused and improved.” There’s no need to be intimidated by online teaching if you keep it simple and build from there. And of course, find yourself an instructional designer!  “Just call us. Send an e-mail to us. We’re here!”  

Looking forward, Rob tells me that he “would like to see online learning become more integrated with the way people work through micro-learning and just-in-time learning; and there is an opportunity for the academy to provide a foundation for this learning; to constantly supplement it with online in-the-moment micro-learning performance support. I think this is where online learning needs to go, but I think we’re still a long way from that.”  There is so much information out there already, but how do students know what is accurate or useful? “I really think that our profession needs to evolve to provide both foundation and practicality, and practicality needs to be in the moment. For instance, even if all you want to do is build a schedule for a project, you have to understand concepts and other contextual knowledge which is the foundation that still needs to be structured as a comprehensive program. But then, in the moment, when you are ready to build that schedule, you should be able to access with a micro-learning tool immediately.” 

One final thought from Rob: “I think there will always be room for face-to-face, virtual instructor-led synchronous, and instructor-led asynchronous learning experiences. And after the past few years, maybe people can settle into their preferences and recognize the benefits of each.” 

Camosun Faculty Story #45: Bev

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.”