Camosun Faculty Story #44: Kari

Kari is a faculty member in the English Department at Camosun College.  When the pandemic moved everyone online back in March 2020, Kari, who was teaching four in-person courses, says “at the beginning it was all panic and we just did what we could. But there one thing that happened despite that panic: we, in the English department, started supporting each other in amazing ways.” 

Finally, the winter term was over, and the summer term arrived.  While several English faculty members, including Kari, had scheduled development (SD) leave, there were three or four others who had to teach online with no prep time at all.  But they were not left to flounder on their own and their colleagues on SD stepped up to support them.  Kari related one example of that support: “Michael Stewart was teaching English 163, so I and two other members of the English department read and watched all the material in his class. Then Michael and the three of us created videos of us analyzing and discussing the course material, which Michael then posted on his D2L site for his students.” 

At one point as well, one of Kari’s colleagues sent out a cry for help asking for someone to co-create a lesson with her.  “So, three of us got together and created a lesson which I’m also using now because it is on a topic covered in multiple courses.”   But this co-creation of materials was not just a boon for faculty, but also useful from the student’s perspective.  “Because I’m still using some of those videos in my in-person class, using them as extension materials, students have the opportunity to watch experienced readers engaging in dialogue, building on each other’s ideas, disagreeing, and then finding understanding. We modelled discourse and disagreement, and how you can move through that to come to understanding, I think, from the student’s perspective, was really rich in building their understanding of these concepts.”  Another interesting outcome of this collaboration was that faculty members were essentially coming into each other’s classes reading each other’s course materials and discussing them, and Kari says she is grateful to have been a receiver as well as a giver within this context.  “On one hand, it’s important to have the academic freedom to do the things we want to do in our classes, but on the other hand, we don’t normally ever go into each other’s classes. We don’t ever see what other instructors are doing and seeing each other in action is a great way to learn.  This opportunity has helped us get a better sense of what other instructors do in their classes and how other they approach topics in our field.” 

One of the challenges Kari faced preparing for teaching online back in 2020 was that there is “a difference between taking an in-person class and throwing it online, and actually designing an online class, because it takes a long time to put together a well-conceived, well-supported online course.” And in addition to trying to create good online courses without adequate time, Kari told me that “the biggest challenge for me was not being able to put a face and personality to the students.”  To try and build some community, she set up online co-writing sessions with her students. “I said, I’m going to be online and I’m just going to do my thing, so you can come do your thing. Some of the students did come to those sessions which I think was valuable for all of us because I was able to interact with them directly.  It really brought home how much, for me, teaching is about interactions with people and watching them build community amongst themselves.” 

One lesson Kari has learned from moving courses online and working with students struggling during COVID-related stress and absences is that flexibility is important for both teaching and learning. As a result, she is now flipping her classes to leverage the best of both the online and in-person worlds.  “I’m saying to the students, all materials are online, and when you come to class, we’ll discuss the material and do writing exercises. Then when they do come to class, we are having great conversations, and doing in-class writing exercises and a lot of peer work because those are the things that you can’t do as effectively online.”  What Kari is also excited about is that flipping the class “gives students more autonomy. They can decide how much further they want to go with the material, if they want to learn more.”  And in addition, it opens the door for them to learn from others, including Kari’s colleagues.  “Often when students come into your classroom the only person they learn from is you, but this way they learn not only from you, but also from each other and from other instructors.” 

Kari has some advice for faculty moving to online teaching.  “First of all, ask for help. There is a lot of help available both institutionally, and within the department. And second, if you’re teaching online, keep it simple. Ask yourself what are the key things the students need? How can they achieve them? And finally, make sure to communicate with the students in whatever way you find most helpful.  What I do with my online students is I send a note on Fridays telling them what’s coming up the next week. And then on Monday I say, hey, welcome to this week.” 

Moving forward, Kari tells me “I feel like I would like to get better at figuring out what’s best online and what’s best in-person and taking advantage of both.” In addition, now that courses have moved back to a mostly pre-pandemic teaching mode, Kari and her colleagues are looking forward to building on the kind of collaboration that evolved over the past two years, creating course materials that can be used by many instructors. I know I am excited to see that, while the English department already had a strong culture of collaboration prior to COVID, it was further strengthened through the common goal of designing and sharing good online activities.   

Camosun Faculty Story #43: Carl

Carl is the Chair of, as well as an instructor in, the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at Camosun.  While I talked to Carl almost 2 years after we all moved to online teaching, he remembers it well. “Having to suddenly shift into an online world for those last three weeks of the semester was very challenging. Fortunately, we already had existing relationships with our students, but one of my concerns was making sure students came to the synchronous online classes.”

Carl’s program is designed to be a face-to-face program, which is not surprising given the nature of the hospitality industry.  “What we do is interact with people, and the types of learners attracted to our program are face-to-face learners. In addition, they’re typically very young learners coming into a two-year diploma and during that first semester they are also learning how to learn, so the challenge was finding ways to keep them engaged.  I think all of us were quite surprised at how engaged the students were and surprised that attendance was in some ways better than face-to-face classes because of the convenience created through online learning.”

Fortunately, Carl had scheduled development time in May/June 2020 to redesign his fall courses for online delivery.  “It was really about rethinking our courses and creating plans B and plan C for the fall.  We had time as a department to step back and say, okay, how are we going to get ready for this?”  Carl counted himself fortunate as he was going to be teaching our Post Degree Diploma students a third-year course in Fall 2020. which meant “because of the nature of a cohort program, I already had an established relationship with those students. Students were very familiar with my expectations about how I teach so my work was more about adjusting expectations for the online world.  For example, considering how to be accessible to students for online, and how to bring in guest speakers (as I normally do) to enrich my class.” 

While Carl feels that he was able to achieve what he wanted to when he moved to online teaching in the fall of 2020, “for those in the department teaching first-year classes it was a different experience. I know some of our learners were struggling with being self-directed and engaged in their first semester in the program.”  Luckily, they were able to run some of their lab classes in person, so faculty could spend time building relationships and giving students more in-person support to help them succeed overall.  Creating a community of learners online was one of the challenges Carl’s program faced. “We try to create a family of students in our program, and then beyond our program, we have graduates who are very connected to our program and often hire our students for work terms. I think the biggest concern I had was that we would lose some of those relationships, lose that larger community as a program.”

Being online, however, proved to be an asset when bringing in guest speakers. “Because we were using Collaborate, our guest was able to speak to the students from Tofino and talk about her property, whereas in the old world, she would not likely have been able to come to Victoria.  I would not likely have delved in that world had it not been for that shift to online learning and being able to bring the outside world into the classroom, I think that was very powerful.”  Carl took a few additional risks with Collaborate to engage with students. “I use a lot of team-based exercises in my classes and while I was worried about recapturing those, I was able to replicate them using breakout rooms, which surprised me.”

Like other faculty, one of the lessons Carl learned moving his courses online “was a reminder that you need to have a very well laid out curriculum and a clear vision of what your course is going to look like.  Then, you need to consider what tools, what pedagogies, to use to deliver that course and engage with student in the online environment, rather than reverting back to your face-to-face pedagogy.”

In addition to adding remote guest speakers to his in-person classes, using Collaborate, Carl told me one of the tools in D2L he will continue to use is the Checklist tool.  “Checklists have been a lifesaver.  They really help your students stay focused, especially when they have multiple courses, and students agreed when I asked them for feedback.” In addition, Carl discovered the Discussions tool in D2L.  I don’t think students are huge fans of it in some ways, but online Discussions help keep students focused on the course material and create conversation. There is nothing in those discussions that is not in my assessments, and when in person, I even allow a little bit of time in class for them, after a lecture, to go to the computer lab and respond to a question in a discussion,” which can help clarify the connection between the discussions and the rest of the course.

Carl has some advice for faculty moving courses online.  First, “think of it as an opportunity rather than a threat because it’s a chance to add to your skill set.”  Then it’s about finding comfort in taking risks and being humble and honest with your students.  “I think it’s okay to feel uncomfortable because it puts you more in line with the student perspective which helps build rapport. Whether you’re teaching face-to-face or online, it’s all about how you create that relationship with students in the first few weeks of the course.”  In addition, learn how to be flexible.  “Don’t be afraid to being those curve ball moments into the classroom for students to see firsthand. I think that helps build capacity, strength, and resilience, all those things we want our learners to be ready with when they go into the workplace.”

Moving forward, Carl does see room for online courses in his program, specifically with some of the Business classes students are required to take.  “One of the positive outcomes of these COVID years is the addition of choice to how students can access courses. Students are now able to make more informed choices about whether they want to be in a classroom or whether they want to be online and having more options is good for students.”

Carl’s final words to me spoke to new directions for his program and the college.  “We shouldn’t be afraid to reinvent ourselves as instructors, as teachers, don’t be afraid to make a leap in a new direction, because it’s all possible.  Two years ago, I would never have imagined that this is where we would be, faculty who never intended on delivering courses online, now online instructors.”

Camosun Faculty Story #42: Pat

Pat is a Math instructor at Camosun, teaching courses in the Technology and Engineering Bridge programs at Interurban.  She said that teaching online was both familiar and new and unexpected at the same time.  “I have been teaching with a tablet for maybe 10 years now, so that was not new.  And while I thought that using Collaborate would be difficult, it actually went really well.  Oddly, I think helped me the most was attending the e-learning workshops on D2L. I didn’t end up using much D2L, but watching people use Collaborate was really helpful – I was learning about the tools that were being used to talk about D2L instead of about D2L!  In the end, Pat used a combination of Collaborate, some D2L, and also her own website which contains archival material from all the courses she’s ever taught.  “Moving online pushed me into finally doing that massive amount of work getting weekly homework up online for my students.”  But she also ran into those insidious online tools students can access that provide solutions to math problems, which she admits is not only a challenge for us here at Camosun, but for math departments across Canada.

One thing that surprised Pat was how much students wanted synchronous sessions. “They really wanted a feeling of interaction with me and the other students, although they didn’t typically turn on their cameras on (and I don’t require them to).”  Very different from her normal face to face classes.  “I usually have a pretty rowdy classroom, but here I was mostly talking to my screen with the occasional reminder that there were people listening to me, which was really isolating and kind of lonely to be honest.”

Pat says she learned a lot about her teaching over the past year.  “Because I was doing a few synchronous sessions, they became the highlights reel, and I ended up tossing out a lot of material that I don’t actually really miss, which is going to change what I do when we go back in person.  That laser focus of where I can put my effort has been really interesting and kind of transformative. Will my in-person lectures in the fall be the same as they were a year ago? No, they won’t.  What will they look like? I don’t know yet, but I’m pretty sure they will be different.”

One challenge Pat mentioned to me was a term I hadn’t heard before, but made perfect sense to me (and I am sure to all faculty over the last year).  “What was most challenging about the fall semester, at least the first month, was decision fatigue.” Decisions about online testing, like “what online tools do you allow and don’t allow? What instructions do you give students? How do you prepare them for it? How do you make sure that they understand the differences between an open book and a closed book exam? Do I just tell the students the instructions, or do I email them as well? And then beyond the testing piece: “How am I going to run my courses? Am I going to have a final exam? What do I do in my Collaborate sessions?  How am I going communicate with students? What are my office hours going to look like?  How do I get the wording (for everything!) just right?”  And related to the decision fatigue Pat faced, fighting exhaustion so she could work with what she called vigilance tasks, those tasks where you have to be at the top of your game, where you can’t be distracted, was also a challenge. For example, “marking tests is a vigilance task. If I want to do my best job marking and be fair to students, I can’t do it when I’m distracted or overly tired because I will make mistakes and not be consistent across the entire class.”

Moving forward, Pat is considering what she will keep from everything she learned last year.  Aside from continuing to work on changing the focus of her lectures, “I am considering having some Collaborate office hours at the end of the day. Email is okay if they send me a picture their work, but sometimes the math notation is so elaborate that being able to do handwritten work with them would be really helpful. “And for students who can’t make it to class, particularly in this time of COVID, having the ability to watch something later is really important. And that is why in my ideal universe, my classes would have videos of examples so that students could go and absorb some of the content in different ways.  Having those multiple modes to support student learning is so important.”

Takeaways from Camosun’s First Blended Learning Conversation Café

On November 4th, 2021, a group of 20 Camosun faculty and staff got together for a conversation about blended learning – what works well, what can be challenging, and what are some solutions and considerations. I wanted to share with you some of the key takeaways from these conversations.

First, however, here is Camosun’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL)’s current working definition of Blended Learning:

A form of hybrid learning which blends in-person and online instruction and where all students generally follow the same mix of online and in-person activities. In some cases, particularly when traditionally in-person courses are moved to a blended model, online activities may replace some in-person activities. This practice is variously referred to as blended, hybrid, or mixed mode, and has important consequences for scheduling and registration procedures.

The first question we posed for open discussion was: What are the best bits (tools and strategies) from your online teaching experience during the pivot that you want to or are carrying forward this year when teaching in-person or in a blended environment?

Leveraging existing and supported tools (for example, in Camosun’s case, D2L tools). These tools provide both transparency around how learners are being assessed, as well as organization and consistency for both learners and instructors.

Providing learners with multiple content modes (text, images, audio, video). Content like this can be reviewed as many times as learners need to. Videos or audio could contain interviews or discussions between subject matter experts, allowing learners to listen to two seasoned readers modelling critical analysis, discussion, exploration of material.

Providing learners with the opportunity to work on content before coming to an in-person class discussion, problem-solving activity based on the content, or question and answer session, in a flipped classroom model.

Designing activities so that they can be done at home in case students can’t come to class (which is definitely an issue these days when students and instructors cannot come to class if they are sick.)

Bringing in guest speakers, either live into the classroom via videoconferencing, or via videos embedded in a course site.

Having learners create content to share and discuss with their colleagues, for example creating a short video outlining an assignment, checking their understanding of the assignment and explaining their work, why they know what they know and what they’ve learned, or having student teams use discussion boards to share their work with other teams.

In smaller groups, we then discussed the following questions: How could a blended delivery model support your students? What do we need to consider? What might be the challenges of a blended learning model? Potential solutions?

Benefits

Blended learning can make education more accessible, encouraging Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and recognizing the diversity of learners and instructors including the diversity of preferred modes of learning/teaching. It can accommodate students who prefer to learn on their own but also students who don’t have the best access to technology and provide flexibility for instructors and students with busy lives.

Blended learning can add options for students who are perhaps reluctant to speak in an in-person class, who need more time to consider questions before volunteering answers, thus broadening course participation, creating more opportunities for interaction, and supporting more collaborative learning.

Blended learning aligns with student expectations and the skills and experience needed in the current (often blended/ always technology assisted) work environment.

Challenges

As an institution we need to create/use consistent definitions for terminology – online, synchronous, blended, asynchronous – as well as acknowledging the different perspectives of students, faculty, institutional services, and administration around these terms.

Because it can be labour intensive to develop a good online or blended course, we need to provide faculty with funding and/or release as well as dedicated support. There can be a steep learning curve for faculty and students both for teaching/learning online and for using the technology. And additionally, access to technology and support can be limited for some students meaning that some aspects of the online component of a blended course may not be available to them.

We need to consider decision-making processes when deciding to run a course in a blended format. Faculty need the ability to structure the classes to what is best for student learning while recognizing the complexities of scheduling logistics between online and on-campus can be tough.

We need to reflect on changing technologies and institutional attachment to specific platforms and software, while ensuring those platforms don’t define our pedagogy but rather support what we need for teaching and learning.

We need to manage learner expectations by ensuring they understand that online courses or course components are not necessarily self-paced, and that the flexibility afforded by blended learning options may require learners to learn additional time management skills.

What’s next?

The participants in our conversation café are looking forward to continuing the conversations next term, and in the meantime, we in CETL will be sharing the key takeaways with our CETL team and leadership at the college, along with some recommendations for future discussion.

Want to know more about how we in CETL are supporting Blended Learning at Camosun? Contact Emily Schudel (schudele@camosun.ca)

Camosun Faculty Story #41: Michelle

Michelle is a faculty member in the Community, Family, and Child Studies (CFCS) and Mental Health and Addictions (MHA) programs at Camosun College.  She was one of the fortunate ones to have taught blended courses in the MHA program before, but she had never developed content for a fully online course until last year. “This was my first opportunity to imagine delivering a course fully online. As somebody who thrives on a lot of interaction, I wanted to offer an online course with the kind of engagement I strive for in my face-to-face classes. By using both asynchronous and synchronous tools, I think I was able to create that interaction.  However, it was a lot of work developing in both modes, trying to figure out what needed to be asynchronous and what needed to be synchronous. In the end, it’s been a year of a tremendous amount of learning and a tremendous amount of overtime.”

During the Fall 2020 term, Michelle taught “the same course to two different program groups. I always collect feedback from students throughout a course and then report back to the students on how I will incorporate their feedback into the course delivery moving forward. This time was more challenging because students communicated a much more diverse range of needs and preferences now that the course was in an online environment. Some wanted more group discussions, and others wanted longer lectures; some said the synchronous classes were too short, others said they were too long.  So finding the right balance, while also not making too much work for myself, was a challenge.”

Meeting the diverse needs of her students and offering both synchronous and asynchronous options were definitely top on the list of challenges Michelle faced.  And related to these was confidence. “At one point, students said they wanted more synchronous content, so I adjusted, but halfway through the term they commented that the synchronous sessions were too long and requested more asynchronous discussions. I did a lot of reorganizing and soon realized that I was struggling to decipher what feedback needed to be incorporated because I wasn’t confident in how I structured the course in the first place, given I hadn’t taught this way before.” But with experience comes confidence, and Michelle now feels she can speak to the students about the balance between synchronous and asynchronous and is confident in the way her courses are structured, so that “the learning outcomes will be met if do the work and ask for help if needed.”

I asked Michelle what worked well for her last year, and she told me, “I was most surprised by how having some sense of anonymity online benefited some of our discussions. I loved that students felt safe enough to disagree with the general sentiments of the class. The diversity of opinions added a lot of richness to discussions.” Michelle also used the Survey tool in D2L for the first time. “I think I got much more thoughtful feedback than I ever got collecting written feedback in person. I was able to speak to why and how we give effective feedback, which connected to the course learning outcomes and resulted in richer information. When I think about what I’m taking forward from this experience, I am confident I am a better instructor now that I am well versed in so many online tools.”

And Michelle found a surprising benefit of teaching online. “I initially didn’t believe that you could explore relational practice effectively completely online, but I was surprised how in many cases being online enhanced our ability to fine-tune our interpersonal skills. Completing role-plays online called on students to be even more attentive to non-verbal skills, attending to eye movement and how people lean in and out, etc.” In addition, Michelle found an unexpected benefit of students being on camera in synchronous sessions. “Students complete an assignment where they record themselves in a role play. Many students have anxiety about being filmed. Getting students used to being on camera early on has made them more comfortable with being recorded later on. They’re watching themselves all the time in Collaborate, so by the time they get to that assignment, looking at themselves is not so intimidating.” In fact, Michelle is going to continue to have students post introductory videos in D2L at the beginning of her courses to give them a low-risk opportunity to lose that camera anxiety.

Michelle advises other faculty moving courses online to make sure to have a clear organizational structure from the beginning. “It doesn’t need to be the same for every instructor, but students shared with me how much they appreciated my consistency. I created each asynchronous module as if it was a story, like another chapter of a book to open. Students only needed to work through one of these chapters each week. This allowed for consistency but also allowed me to incorporate different kinds of media and links. I could include that diversity of activities because there was always a very clear structure containing it all.” Michelle also learned from her experience that she needed to spend more time orienting students to the course to reduce their anxiety, especially if they are learning online for the first time.  But she notes, “students adapted surprisingly well, which is also a good takeaway: how resilient people are and how quickly we can adapt to change.”

In addition to the introductory video, Michelle tells me that her courses next term will be blended.  For example, “instead of showing videos in class, students can watch them at a time that works for them and come prepared to discuss them in-person. I think we’ve had much richer discussions because students reviewed the material in advance and had time to reflect.” Of course, blending means considering which components will work best face-to-face and which will work best online.  Michelle says, “The most interpersonally based pieces will be face-to-face, and then things like videos, self-assessments, etc., will be in D2L – in a structure similar to the one I used last year.” Some students are looking for more flexibility in their post-secondary learning, so as Michelle said to me, there are many advantages to blending your courses. “I’m going to do two hours face-to-face and one hour online. While bringing these two pieces together is challenging, it opens a lot of doors for rich learning. And now that I see what online teaching can be, I can confidently say that there’s a lot we could be doing online.”

Michelle’s final words were inspiring to me.  It was a lot of work, but “I don’t regret it by any means. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and cannot believe how confident I feel now in an online classroom.  Before this, I would have opposed a fully online CFCS or MHA program, but I see it as a possibility now. That’s been a big shift for me:  I believed students needed those face-to-face experiences, but now I feel very confident that if you design it right, you can have a different kind of richness learning these skills fully online.”

Camosun Faculty Story #40: Laura

Laura teaches in the English Language Development program at Camosun.  Laura considers herself fortunate that when the pivot to online teaching/learning happened back in March 2020, she was on scheduled development leave so had time to prepare for complete online teaching in May/June.  Laura reflects that the Spring term went quite well in the end.  “I think we were all a bit nervous, but students and instructors were quite accommodating and kind to one another through all the challenges.”  While Laura ended up teaching three courses she had never taught before, she reflects that “in some ways it was better because I just planned how to teach them online from scratch, rather than having to transition a face-to-face class to completely online.”

Starting back in May 2020, Laura taught, and continues to teach (since she is still teaching online), mostly synchronously for her courses but using a flipped classroom model.  D2L houses the course pack, her course assignments, and her weekly News posts, which let students know what will be happening in the synchronous sessions.  After working on her online teaching strategies throughout the spring and summer, Laura felt much more comfortable teaching online last fall.  “I was teaching the same classes, and it went well. I changed some of the content, but did not really adjust the teaching style. During the synchronous classes, we’re together for the first hour to hour and a half going over work that students prepared during the previous class, and for the second part of class, they’re working in small groups on the activities they need to complete in preparation for the next class. By having them stay in their study groups for longer periods of time, with me visiting the groups, they can focus more deeply and really immerse themselves in the tasks. This also reduces the potential for cognitive overload, which can occur virtually when being moved around too much and switching tasks too frequently.”

While her online classes continue to go well, Laura has definitely had some challenges with teaching online.  First and foremost, troubleshooting technology issues can be challenging, although she noted how supportive she found college technical support to be in getting through those issues. However, she told me that it was frustrating to develop strategies to build and maintain engagement with all students.  “Prioritizing engagement and making the learning experience meaningful and interesting are my objectives, but also my greatest challenges online.”  During her first term teaching online, Laura made adjustments to how she taught and assessed her classes to support engagement.  Because she had students working more independently, she decided to mark those independent tasks as complete or incomplete and connected them with a participation mark. “Those tasks are required, and if they aren’t completed, then a participation mark disappears. Students are allowed to miss three over the term, and this could be because they are busy that week, or they do not want to complete that task. While most students understand the value of feedback for helping them succeed in formal assessments, some students need that extra bit of incentivization to complete these informal assessments, which will ultimately help them be more successful in the course and beyond.”

Laura tells me one of the rewards from the past year and a half was discovering how convenient and time saving it was to have all her content, as well as all her assignments, on D2L. Aside from students having access to all the content to review when they want to, “I have students looking back from their early to later assignments and they can really see their growth.”  She also uses the Discussions tool more now.   “Students make weekly discussion (journal) posts about literature that we’ve read. And when they go back and look at their first journal to their last journal, it’s so motivating for them to see how much they’ve developed.”  And finally, Laura has seen how moving online can be much more inclusive and accessible, “I record all the Collaborate sessions, so students can watch them if they missed a session or need additional clarification on something – that ability to go back and review is key.”

Laura also discovered that changing her teaching style and handing over more responsibility to her learners was another big reward for her.  “They now need to preview more content before class, for example, watch a video and do some reading on a topic.  Then, one group is responsible for summarizing and presenting that topic to us. Giving them the opportunity to lead the class can both deepen their learning and engagement, and they like taking responsibility for that important intellectual work. This involves not just answering comprehension questions but presenting key content areas to the class with me supplementing, clarifying and correcting the areas that they require additional support with.”

Laura’s advice to other faculty moving their courses online is that “everything takes longer than you think.” In addition, she advocates carefully considering the cognitive load on students where they are not only learning content and developing skills, but also learning online tools and learning to learn online.  “In a class, I have students doing fewer tasks, but I try to maximize what we get out of those tasks.”

Moving forward, Laura plans to keep using D2L so students both have access to the course content and know what they need to do in advance of coming to a live class, whether it’s online or in person.  “The Cognitive Load Theory also explains that if we don’t know what to expect, then we worry, and this limits what we can learn. Teaching students how to learn and how to use the technology are also key aspects of reducing negative cognitive distractions and developing successful online teaching and learning.”

Camosun Faculty Story #39: Judith

Judith, a faculty member in the English Language Development Department, was in the middle of teaching when we all suddenly moved online in March 2020.  Because she had been concentrating on non-teaching work for the previous six years, she had not yet integrated much D2L into her teaching, “When I had to go completely online all of a sudden, there was a huge gap in my knowledge and for those five or six weeks I was in survival mode.” Like many other faculty, she simply tried to do what she could to get students through the end of that Winter 2020 term.

In May/June, Judith was able to take a bit of a breath, take workshops on teaching online, and learn what she could to prepare for the Fall term.  “I was still in a bit of survival mode in the fall. I taught synchronously, and I was probably online with students for at least two hours of each 2½ hour class, while still being available online for that last half hour.”  As Judith became more comfortable with the basics, she slowly added more tools into her teaching, and while building her toolkit, Judith discovered she liked the options some of the tools offered to her students. For example, she began to use the audio recording feature in the D2L Assignments tool.  “Students were able to record their opinion or read a passage for pronunciation. They even could use their phones and upload the recordings. Some students didn’t blink an eye learning how to do this, while other students had a harder time, but being able to record directly on D2L helped. Then I was able to provide recorded feedback as well, which I think the students liked.”  That fall term, however, was tough. “In the fall, I was overwhelmed with so much work that again I just dealt with what I could, slowly adding more over the term. I also found the marking very time-consuming,” a frustration I have heard over and over from faculty moving from hand-marking to digital marking.  While Judith says she eventually “got used to the online marking tools, I still find them kind of frustrating and awkward.”

These were some of the many challenges Judith faced when moving everything online, but I asked what her biggest challenge was. “I would say organizing materials – getting rid of extraneous things and getting a better handle on what I had on D2L – was my biggest problem.”  In addition, Judith was teaching one course she hadn’t taught for many years, and another that she hadn’t taught before at all.  “Not only had I not used D2L much before, but I’d also not recently taught ELD 072 or 075.  Even if we’d been in the classroom, I would have had to spend quite a bit of time preparing to teach.” While organization was a challenge for Judith, she also says it was also a reward in the end. “I think I became more organized than normal because I was forced to. Every evening on D2L I made sure to tell students what we were going to do the next day, rather than being as spontaneous as I might have in the classroom. I think in some ways that made me a better and certainly more organized teacher.”

When I asked about other rewards, Judith told me she “was amazed at the students – I was amazed that I had almost no attrition. With very rare exceptions, students were there and ready to go, answering questions and participating, which makes me realize that even though I worked very hard over the past eight months, it meant something…it had a real impact. I’m sure there’s lots I could have done better, and I’m sure it was hard for the students, but they came along for the ride regardless.”

Judith will take some lessons with her from the past year.  “There’s the obvious takeaways of learning what one can do online, how we can make it work for the students. But the biggest takeaway is realizing what we can do when we need to, and that people don’t give up, they just keep going.”  Judith does, however, miss seeing her students face to face, and was delighted when she met a student she had never seen in person while on a walk one day. “Online, you still get to know people – to like them or sometimes to have difficulties that need to be worked out. You can still have great conversations, but it isn’t the same. It’s sad that we couldn’t be together in person.”

Moving forward, Judith is happy to have the organizational piece in place and to have the all course content available in one place for students.  Even after the pandemic, “I may even still meet students online, for example if somebody can’t come to my office hour. And I think I will continue to use the recording in D2L option for the courses that have pronunciation and speaking.”

Judith has some final words of advice for any new colleagues who may be teaching online for the first time.  “Don’t bite off more than you can chew, and don’t worry about doing everything from day one. Decide what your priorities are, figure out how to do those things, and make do with what you can do.  With regards to the past year, Judith reflects, “it’s been hard, but what a great push we’ve all had, because we often don’t do things until we have to, or have the time. But it didn’t matter if you had time or not. You had to do it.  We have all done so much learning and that’s fantastic.”

Camosun Faculty Story #38: Diane G.

Diane teaches in the BEST (Academic Upgrading Building Employment Success for Tomorrow) program at Camosun College.  She started our interview expressing her feelings about moving to online teaching in March 2020:  “I think it’s been amazing adventure with wonderful surprises, and an opportunity for me, as an instructor, to walk the talk, to be congruent with what I ask the students to do because I’m doing it as well, moving out of the comfort zone into the growth zone. I’ve been really touched by their acceptance, their patience, their understanding of us as a team as we tell them it’s not perfect, but we’re moving forward, we’re in the growth zone with you. It’s been just heart enriching and also skill enriching for me as an instructor.”

Diane is grateful first of all for all the support the college gave BEST students, providing them with computers and internet boosters.  “I had some online curriculum in D2L to use which helped me when we moved online, but some of my students didn’t have Internet access or computers at home, and some only had smart phones. So I did a lot of talking and texting and emailing with that group. But by the fall, we had a tech assessment process in place and were able to get loaner laptops and Internet boosters for them. That was a huge for my teaching because I feel it’s important that everyone is on equal footing.”  And she is also grateful to her team, Val (see Camosun Faculty Story 22: Val) and their Instructional Assistant Allyson, saying “I did a mountain adventure when I turned 40, and then a sea kayak surf adventure where I was part of the team leading, and there were a lot of parallels to the move online in terms of hard work, long hours, and that team approach, as well as the challenge to discover what you can accomplish mentally, physically, and spiritually.”  In fact, I was priveleged to have all three of the BEST team, Diane, Val, and Allison, in one or more of my Facilitating Learning Online courses last year, and I can attest to their dedication to making the online environment work for their students.

Like many faculty members I’ve spoken to, Diane spent a lot of time thinking about how to connect with students during this incredibly stressful time.  “In terms of teaching, I want to be tuned into how much stress they were under so I could make adjustments to assignments, to due dates, and to whatever it was that they needed.  I didn’t want to hold them up to rigid timelines; I just wanted them to do their best and to stay connected.”  Whatever the BEST team did must have worked for students, because Diane told me that they had better attendance in their synchronous online courses than they typically do in a face-to-face class.  “People were rolling out of bed with their bed hair and logging in.”

Diane feels that having to learn online was beneficial for students in ways beyond just learning the course content.  “I believe that students need this experience of being online, meeting online, etiquette online, and learning more about being a self-directed learner, including time-management and focus skills.”  And in the past year, BEST has seen different kinds of students join the program.  “We’ve had parents, a lot of gamers, and socially shy people taking the program and attending in a strong way. Learning online definitely provides more flexibility for some students, although I think some people still miss the face-to-face for sure. But I just talked to a student this week who said he wants to go on with online learning. It’s just more convenient,” not an uncommon discovery from the past year.

One other benefit to teaching and learning online Diane mentioned was being able to bring guest speakers into classes.  “It’s so meaningful for the students – they love the guest speakers because we bring in people related to the career curiosities. So the guest speakers just need to log in, and they don’t have to drive and park and find out where the classroom is.  It’s so easy for them.”  And finally, Diane reiterated something Val mentioned in her interview around how much more easily students can share a bit of their world with the rest of the class.  “Because they are in their own space, I’ll ask them to take five minutes and find an object that’s meaningful for them, then come back and tell the class why that object has meaning for them.”

The experience of the past year was not without its challenges though.  The BEST team worked hard to hone the assessments for their courses so that there weren’t as many, so that students were not overwhelmed.  “That’s what we’re doing now. These last eight months have been a wonderful pilot opportunity, and now we’re looking at what assignments to keep, adapt, or let go, as well as how to weight them because we’re also moving to articulate the program for adult graduate credit at the BC grad diploma credit.”  And one other challenge, which will sound familiar to many, was trying to decide what pieces of the course should be asynchronous and what pieces should be, in as Diane put it, part of the “precious, precious synchronous time.”

Diane has several pieces of advice for anyone thinking of moving their courses online.  First, she recommends looking for existing online curriculum so you don’t have to start completely from scratch.  Second, get a team around you.  Third, ask students for feedback. “Every week we asked for feedback, and then at the end of the program we asked for feedback on the whole experience.”  And most importantly “don’t try to be perfect, just do the best you can and keep it simple.”  Finally, Diane wants faculty to know that “it’s going to be a fun and challenging adventure. The first round is the hardest one, and then it’ll get better.  Have faith, have fun people around you, take regular breaks, and remember that any crisis has incredible opportunity in it as well.”

The plans for BEST are to, for the time being, keep it online and refine the synchronous/asynchronous model the team has been working with.  “I hope moving forward, by keeping BEST online, we can attract people from across the province and the country. We’ve also had interest in the program from international students, which was another surprising piece, although there are not many tuition-free education and career planning programs out there.”

Update:  since this interview, Diane tells me that students from their last year’s BEST program (online!) are now enrolled in several Camosun programs this term, including Mental Health and Addictions, Mechanical Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Kinesiology, and Upgrading.

Faculty Story #37: Chrisa

Chrisa teaches learning skills and supervises the Writing Centre at Camosun.  In both roles, she meets with students one-on-one, and is also invited into classes to talk about learning strategies.

Chrisa told me that initially, when the college moved all its classes and services online back in March 2020, “the biggest part of my job was transitioning the Writing Center team to virtual tutoring. Fortunately, we already were using a platform that allowed us to meet with students virtually, we just hadn’t used it that way before.”  However, there were also staff in the English Help Centre who provide learning and writing skills to students who had not used this system at all, so “we decided that we needed to get those writing consultants on board with our online booking system as well.”  Once working remotely was established for everyone, and we all remember how quickly that happened, the next question was how was Chrisa’s team going to help students, and how were students and faculty going to know that they were still available to provide that help.

“It was a learning curve for all of us, but eventually we were set up and able to reach out to students. We had a fairly quiet spring term, but by summer 2020 word was getting out, and instructors began to respond to our emails asking to be invited into their classes. Marketing our services was quite a bit more challenging in the virtual world because instructors were still new to online teaching, but by fall term, it wasn’t nearly as complicated, and once the word was out we got really busy.”

Chrisa reminded me that, in Fall 2020, I had invited her to co-facilitate some student orientations with me, where I showed them D2L, Collaborate, etc., and she introduced them to the Writing Centre and Learning Skills.  She told me “I had taken virtual courses before (including CETL workshops), but hadn’t taught online myself, and one of the best forms of instruction was when I got to shadow you and see what it was like teaching in a live real-time session.”  In addition, being an online student yourself is hugely helpful when you are, in turn, supporting students learning how to navigate online learning.

Chrisa told me her biggest challenge while working remotely was feeling isolated.  “Trying to connect with people initially felt like swimming through mud, especially when I was sending e-mails but not hearing back from instructors, which was understandable because I knew everybody was struggling at that time.”  And she was acutely aware of the challenges students were facing.  “Sometimes students couldn’t figure out how to register for an account or book an appointment, so we set up a writing center e-mailbox allowing them to contact us directly with problems or questions. But of course, someone needed to monitor that inbox because often students would contact us when they had technical issues getting into a virtual session.  If someone wasn’t checking that inbox regularly, then an hour could pass and it would be too late for that student.”

Chrisa has found many rewards over the past year.  “The first is that I feel like the Writing Center team has become much more cohesive because we are now meeting using Teams. Whereas before, because we had offices on both campuses, it was much harder to pull meetings together.  I feel that’s also true with some of the other groups I’m a part of – it’s so much easier to meet with people now and I’m sure that will continue.”  This has certainly been an observation made by others (myself included) who, in the past, had to regularly travel between campuses for meetings.  But Chrisa found another exciting opportunity in virtual teaching:  “What really struck me during one of my sessions with international students was that we can meet with students living all over the world. And they were so grateful, and so much fun, and so funny.  It was a really inspiring moment for me when I thought wow!  This has fantastic possibilities.”  And finally, Chrisa is considering continuing with her virtual in-class sessions with students.   “I’ve discovered amazing ways to engage students virtually, like using a whiteboard where students are more likely to participate and engage, because it can be anonymous.”

Some of the lessons Chrisa will take away with her from the past year include making sure to ask for help.  “I’m better at it, but I’m usually the helper, not the one that asks for help, so that’s been a gradual transition for me. Also, trust my intuition, because it’s been pretty good. And trust that people are resilient, because I’ve been amazed by the resiliency demonstrated by my team and by students. Expect the unexpected, be flexible, and be kind to yourself and to everybody else.”  Chrisa reflected that even while knowing we were all in the middle of an extremely stressful situation, most people still expected too much of themselves.  “When I meet with students, they often seem upset with themselves because they feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t already understand something they are in the process of learning. And I probably had similar feelings as we made this transition to online, I think I was probably pretty hard on myself. Over the past year, the cognitive load has been gigantic for everyone, and when you’re dealing with so many stressors, it’s harder to learn. It’s harder to think clearly. It’s harder to access your analytical capacity. And it’s therefore easy to feel like there’s something wrong with you.  So that’s the other lesson learned – make sure to access the support and community that surrounds you, especially when you’re feeling isolated.”

If Chrisa were giving advice to someone suddenly having to move online for work or teaching, “I’d say it’s probably going to be a bumpy ride, but you will probably also enjoy it because you will learn a ton. Make sure to ask for help, and if possible, shadow someone so you can see online teaching in action. In addition, if possible, take baby steps to make it more manageable.”  And finally, Chrisa gave some words of wisdom I really appreciated:  “take a lot of breaks, listen to uplifting music, take some deep breaths, and build in strategies to help you cope with trying to learn so much new information at once.”

Like Alison in the Centre for Accessible Learning, Chrisa is looking forward to continuing some virtual student support moving forward.  “We want to offer both options because students really appreciate that flexibility, so I’m sure we’ll offer some blended options to students and they’ll probably expect it as well.”  I can say myself with some certainty that services for students, much like classroom learning, are not going to look the same as they did before, in a good way!

Camosun Faculty Story #36: Brent M.

Brent is a faculty member in the Medical Radiography (MRAD) program at Camosun College (and yes, there are TWO Brents in MRAD!).  Because most of Brent’s courses are labs requiring students be face-to-face, when the college moved online in March 2020 he faced significant challenges, including facing a program cancellation for that initial period of the lockdown.  But Brent told me he “was lucky because as we learned more about COVID, the addition of safe-start options to the initial restrictions allowed us to adapt our lab time, meaning I was able to get some face-to-face time with the students.”

Because in-person class time was limited, Brent ended up flipping his class.  Students accessed the lecture material asynchronously, and in-class time was dedicated to questions and discussion.  Brent decided to look at it as an opportunity to try something new, explaining “our program is very intense and normally involves students being in class for full days, but because of the pandemic, I didn’t want to put pressure on them to have to show up for long hours. Therefore, this became the first time I put more ownership on the students to complete work outside of class, which was hard for me to do because a lot of what I did before was very teacher-driven.” Brent also found flipping difficult because “I love teaching face to face – that’s what gets me up in the morning: building connections, having inside jokes, and getting to know the students and how they work.”

Brent taught two cohorts last year, one of whom was new to the program.  Like other faculty in this situation, Brent noticed a difference between how these two groups reacted to the way courses were taught during COVID.  The new group, of course, didn’t know what to expect.  “We worried that we would miss something important, but in the end my colleague Sarah and I were able to trim the fat a little and concentrate on what was really needed to cover the course outcomes.”  In addition to having limited time face-to-face, class sizes were also limited due to restrictions.  “There were a total of 16 students, separated into blocks of four for the lab time, so the full class never interacted as a larger group.  In addition, Sarah and I only taught eight students each, so we each only met half the class,” and for this group, the flipped model seemed to work well.  “They had to have worksheets completed before coming to lab, and they did all come in prepared because they knew how valuable the lab time was.”  In addition, because this group had less lab time there were other activities online to make up for this, and to enhance these activities, Brent searched for a virtual simulation tool he could integrate for students to use outside of lab time.  “It was hard to find a simulation tool that would be easy to use and give you what you need. And I wanted to make sure a new tool would support student learning rather than just adding to their stress.”  Eventually Brent found a tool which was applicable to the level one students, allowing them to use it on their own time, and giving them immediate feedback as well as a certificate.

Brent worked with his other group, the one who was not new to the program, a little differently “because they already had a relationship with us and craved more face-to-face time, so I ended up lecturing over Collaborate instead of having them prepare everything on their own. I wasn’t planning on doing that originally, but it was something those students needed, and I think it went really well for them.”

In addition to addressing different cohort needs in the face of limited face-to-face time, Brent faced the challenge of plunging into a new world, not knowing “how the courses were going to look and how students were going to react to them. I wasn’t worried about the technology, but I wanted to provide a good product and be proud of it.”  But Brent told me “my biggest challenge was to keep those student relationships. I lucked out because my course was blended, so I knew we would be okay because we had that face-to-face time. But it reinforced to me how important the learning environment is, and how important it is to devote the time to working on that connection between learners and instructor.”

When I asked him about what rewards he may have seen come out of this past year, Brent had a few things to say.  “What this has allowed me to do is change. There’s a certain point in your career where you need a challenge, and this allowed me to venture outside the box, which is something we ask students to do all the time. And if you can reflect on why something new is hard for you, you can relate better to your students.  And now I’m much more comfortable trying something new, and being ok if it doesn’t work, whereas before I put a lot of pressure on myself as an instructor to get it right all the time.  Now I know that as long as we have outcomes to meet, I can change how I meet them because students will still get what they need.”  But Brent tells me that his biggest takeaway was finding out how adaptable students are.  “They did an unbelievable job, even while juggling lots of other things in the background.”

I wanted to spotlight one other experience from last year Brent related to me.  “I used Collaborate when the year-ones went out to clinical. I hadn’t met some of them and my clinical hospitals were in the north of Vancouver Island, but I was recommended not to travel at that time, so instead I had bi-weekly Collaborate sessions with them.  What I noticed was that many of these students were away from home for the first time, and were now isolated due to the pandemic, as well as learning at a hospital, which is very difficult. Having these regular Collaborate sessions allowed some of them to open up about their challenges.  I’ve known since day one that teaching is about more than just content, but this experience really emphasized that.”

Brent’s advice to others who might be moving courses online is simple:  “Reach out and ask for help. Teaching can be isolating, and it can be hard to ask for help, but there are people out there who are willing to help. I enjoyed the opportunities to work with other peer groups in the college because we had to rely on each other a little bit more. In addition, just try something new and if it doesn’t work, adjust the sails.”  Brent also advises being prepared, but not holding onto expectations or predictions of how things will turn out, because “a lot of my stress comes from our expectations.”

Finally, moving forward, Brent tells me “we’re still going to teach blended online in September. We will continue to build on our library of videos and use the simulation tool.  I might also continue to record my lectures so students can go back and review them.”  And finally, Brent ended his conversation with me reiterating our need as instructors to emphasize care in addition to content in our teaching, saying “if you take care of the person, everyone is going to learn.”