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.”