Liz teaches in the Dental Hygiene program at Camosun College. Now, this is one of the programs that has managed to have some face to face teaching since just after the shut-down. I remember last May, the students who had had their clinical courses interrupted in March, suddenly being sent back in so they could finish their program. This created an even more stressful time for instructors, both moving some courses online, and working to keep their students safe while they completed their clinical work. What Liz and I talked about, however, was her work moving her more lecture-based courses online for the fall term.
One of the first things Liz told me was that after the craziness of last spring, she had to take a break to clear her head. She had already been thinking that her approach for moving courses online for the fall would be to “take a hard look at teaching in general. Take time to look back on the courses that I teach, and approach them in a slightly different way, which was to [determine] what is a “must know”, what is a “should know,” and what is a “nice to know”…Then, after making sure I had the course outcomes covered, I could focus my time and attention on the musts and then on the shoulds, and then if I had time, I could weave the nice to knows into it.” But first, she needed to rest her mind: “I think what I was doing was letting go over the summer, thinking about different approaches, and then I literally pulled out every one of my outcomes and performance indicators, and just blew it up.”
Liz believes that this whole last year was an opportunity to “reinvest in the approach to teaching.” Liz has a background in educational technology, so is not afraid of trying new things, and she has always been free with her content, posting her PowerPoints and providing students with guided questions for their readings. But now she had to figure out how to work in an environment where she couldn’t see 25 faces looking perplexed, saying “I think that lack of face-to-face connection makes adaptation a little bit more difficult.” That ability to be flexible and adapt from what you are reading in students’ faces is definitely more challenging online.
But overall, Liz sees rewards everywhere. One of the biggest ones has been integrating Universal Design for Learning (UDL). She notes that while some faculty worry that “if you tape a lecture, the students won’t come, that’s not been in my experience at all. They all come all the time. If I have a synchronous class, I probably have 98% of them there every time…I think the value of having lectures taped for them is that they actually use them to review. I can get passionate and talk a little bit fast at times, and so I think they find it valuable to be able to go back over discussions. And that’s universal design.”
What was her biggest takeaway? Liz says, “I think it is the opportunity to step back and try to figure out what is it that we’re actually trying to achieve. I think it’s a time for renewal. I think I had a past tendency to teach the way I was taught. And in the future, we need to embrace the fact that the Information Age is here and the speed of change of material is great.” Not that she thinks this is easy. “You need the time in advance to look at a course, back up from it, and think about how you would do this completely differently, and there can be really big wins on the other side of it.”
And this is also some of the advice Liz would have for faculty moving into online teaching for the first time. “Instead of thinking … I have to teach online in a traditional way, think outside the box. And also divide your content into those musts, shoulds, and nice to knows, because I think we have a lot of nice to knows, because we are passionate and want to try to give it all to them.” In addition, Liz, like other faculty members I’ve talked to, points to looking back on the past year as a positive, saying, “there are times when you force somebody into a situation, and they’re going to learn something, be it good or bad, so I think the whole thing has been an opportunity to learn and be creative.”
Liz has spent some time reflecting on this past year, seeing it as an extension of her journey as an instructor. “I think my journey in the last five years of teaching is about releasing control. Put it in the hands of the learner and they exceed your expectations every time. I think [we need to ask ourselves] why we do the things we do? When I did that, I realized it was because that’s the way I’ve always done it or that’s the way it was when I was a learner…I don’t think it has to be elaborate and I don’t think you have to use the maximum number of tools…The goal isn’t to learn tech: the goal is to learn some content.” And some classes will be a better fit for face-to-face, just as some students will perform better face to face – we need to consider what the best mode is for courses, students, and faculty, for their teaching and learning. Let’s not take this investment we have all just made and toss it out because of the fear that online education is substandard. Instead, look forward. “I think it needs to be different – I think our world is different and I think it’s a giant opportunity to figure out how to teach this generation that’s coming forward.”