Zack teaches Learning Skills and Math Upgrading at Camosun, and has for over 25 years. Since he now only teaches half time, and had never taught synchronously online (a mode which many of the students he serves really need), he found the move in March of last year to teaching entirely online very challenging. He remarks “along with Learning Skills, I was teaching self-paced, upgrading math when COVID hit. I had to pivot to doing almost all my teaching by phone, which was really clunky and hugely time-consuming…And doing tests online was really tricky – we wanted to keep the integrity of the test, but we had to let that go a bit. So, we were all scrambling at first and it was a bit of a mess.”
Moving forward into planning for his fall term, Zack had scheduled development time in May and June, which he spent creating content for D2L (which he had already used quite a bit previously to COVID), and learning the complexities of Collaborate with some of his colleagues. It was during one of these practice sessions that Zack had an “aha” moment – realizing that if he had uploaded a PowerPoint to Collaborate, students could write on it anonymously and that “students could take part almost more than they could in a regular class….I like that anonymous function. In fact, I keep thinking when we get back face to face, I would like to continue that because it allows students to participate more in real ways.”
One of the biggest realizations Zack has had over the past year is that he, and other faculty, now find themselves in the same boat as students. He told me he took a Java course a few years ago, as a full-on student (taking exams, and everything!) and found that experience to be so valuable, because aside from learning the subject matter, he also stepped into that student experience and engaged in the learning skills he himself teaches. That deep dive into the student experience he says helped him as an instructor, saying “if you’re teaching a support course like learning skills and you’re not relating to where they are, students may tend to discount that course.” But not just if you are teaching support courses – “I would encourage other instructors to not to let go of their ability to be students,” and to let themselves experience that vulnerability, a vulnerability all instructors were forced to face starting last March.
One of the things Zack discovered as he moved his courses online “was that there are a lot of creative ways we can use online tools to save work, and then you can be more focused on the teaching.” He especially appreciates the ability of D2L to support the marking of assessments, giving him more time to engage with students. Speaking of engagement, Zack told me that he would like to have time to talk to other instructors about how they have engaged with students online. He notes though that it’s “not just necessarily about online teaching because the online experience can be similar to the face-to-face teaching experience.” He belongs to the Teaching and Learning Community of Practice at Camosun and loves talking about the craft of teaching with his peers, missing the face to face opportunities over the past year. I hope that faculty will find opportunities to reflect together on the past year.
When I asked what advice Zack has for other instructors moving to online teaching, he said to first attend CETL workshops, also practice with your peers, and “keep in mind that….that you need to understand how vulnerable students can feel. We need to remember that students can feel frustrated, wondering what’s wrong with them, especially when they’re on their own. I think that’s what scares me a lot about teaching online – students are really pretty isolated.”
Finally, Zack sees moving back to face to face as an opportunity to keep some of what he has learned and created, comparing the tools he now has available to him to a set of paint brushes (words from a fellow Camosun faculty member in Engineering) which allows him to be more creative with his teaching canvas. We were all forced into this online teaching realm, but at the same time Zack asked himself “once I get past that first challenging part, and feel that I handle it and feel confident that I can do it, then can I move to that point where it can be fun and creative and interesting and rich?” That is where we hope we and our students have gotten to now, and where we can begin building from as we move forward.