Debra is a faculty member in the English Language Development (ELD) area here at Camosun College. I have had the privilege of working with her in bits and pieces over the years before COVID, but until last March/April, she was really only using PowerPoints and videos in the classroom, and using D2L minimally, mainly the News tool – “I was using that just to give them homework and make announcements.”
Imagine suddenly being faced with teaching completely online having not really used any online teaching tools before. It’s not a stretch of the imagination for many faculty members we in eLearning have been working with over the past almost a year. Debra herself “was certainly frightened of the technology and having to use the technology in such a different way…I didn’t have any idea how to use Collaborate, or I how to use most of the tools in D2L.” But, she overcame her fears and, coming back from vacation early, attended as many eLearning workshops as she could And most of all, she took the time to practice with the technologies, with her colleagues in ELD – peers supporting peers.
And it wasn’t only faculty supporting each other. Debra tells me that her first time teaching online went better than she expected because “[she] had done a lot of preparation and went in there believing [her students] were probably just as frightened of the experience as [she] was, and … [they] basically supported each other through the experience.” Like many faculty, Debra and her students were used to being in a face to face classroom where students “presume that you have a certain command of the situation.” But in this new world, “I knew that they really weren’t expecting me to have the same level of competence with the technology, and that took some of the pressure off.”
Debra says there wasn’t one moment that stood out for her during her first online teaching experience, but points to her students’ progress, as well as their positive feedback for her around the content and the delivery of the course as factors that made her feel good about the experience. In spite of everything, students were making good progress. And with regards to the fear of cheating which haunts many instructors during these online teaching times, she says that even though “I didn’t have the same control over their output, I did see them making progress. They couldn’t have cheated their way through to the outcomes that I saw at the end of the course. I did challenge them if I believed they cheated and I asked them to resubmit the work. But my main concerns were, are they turning up? Are they participating? Are they making progress? And that’s what I focus on.”
As for one thing she didn’t expect from the experience, Debra says she was surprised how much she enjoyed it. “Lock-down was a very isolating experience…so, having that contact with [students] every day, I felt less isolated … And I enjoyed the differences. It was a different experience and it was interesting and it was stimulating, and that’s why it was challenging.” And that challenge has, by pushing her out of her comfort zone (which is something familiar to her having done freelance work all over the world) reinvigorated how Debra feels about teaching. “I was afraid, but I decided to accept the challenge and I’m glad that I did.”
As for Debra’s vision for the future of her own teaching after everything that she’s learned over the past several months, she is currently preparing quizzes and other online materials, and planning to ”make much more use of technology than I did before…I might do a lot more online marking than I’ve done and I know I’ll make more use of technology.”
When I asked if she has any advice she would give colleagues, or any new faculty members who are suddenly having to teach online, Debra recalled an old joke: “How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time,” something a friend told her a few years ago when she faced other life-altering challenges. “I think that taking on a big challenge, that’s the only way to deal with it. If you try to envision the whole problem as one problem, the whole situation as one…it’s too much to deal with. But if you just break it down and take it a step at a time, it isn’t.” And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Supporting each other, and taking one step at a time.
Next for Debra, however, is a break. She finishes her Scheduled Development time at the end of February, and then will be off on vacation until she teaches this spring. This year I hope she gets a complete break and comes back refreshed, ready to meet her new students without panic, and with confidence.