Susan is a Statistics instructor at Camosun – you can imagine perhaps some of the challenges she faced moving her class online, especially during the panic of last March. But Susan was prepared. The week before the College moved online, Susan came to eLearning and got set up with Collaborate so she could try out virtual live teaching using her tablet PC (which is a huge necessity for any course where you have to write formulas and draw graphs.) So, the following week when we all moved online, she was ready to go and able to support her students using Collaborate + tablet to finish off her term.
After that mad rush, Susan had some time to consider how she was going to teach in the fall. To help her figure this out, she first surveyed her students from the winter term to ask them what they would like – “about three quarter to 80% said they wanted synchronous classes, and the rest of them said partial-synchronous. Not a single person wanted to have asynchronous classes.” Then Susan attended many of the eLearning workshops offered in May and June to find out what the eLearning folks recommended. But, the surveys and what she was hearing in the workshops didn’t always mesh and Susan was confused. So, while she initially had decided to run fully synchronous online lectures for fall, Susan changed her mind in the middle of summer and decided to create lectures videos and so she did.
Of course, every instructor and student is different in how they prefer to teach or learn, and over the fall term, Susan found her way. She ran fully synchronous classes for the semester although pre-recorded lectures are already available to the students in D2L. This is because during the first month in the fall, she “interviewed all my students one by one – everybody got 10 minutes with me. It [seemed] crazy [in that] first month to finish interviewing them, but it made such a difference for many of them.” She asked them what kind of support they needed, and also what mode of delivery, live or video, did they prefer, and once again most students said they wanted the live sessions. Why? Susan says partly because “they want to hear what other students have to say. So many of them are there to hear what questions other people [have] and they don’t want to miss out on anything.” This term, Susan does both: she has her live sessions and posts the recordings of those sessions after by week. But this term, she has also discovered that different student groups prefer different modes of learning. Her first years, mostly social science students, still prefer the live sessions, but her second years (engineering students) wanted to meet synchronously once a week only, preferring the option of watching videos on their own time.
Susan found online exams to be a particular challenge for her. Last March, while finishing off her winter courses, she unfortunately discovered her exams ended up on a cheating site, Chegg.com. So, she decided that instead of worrying about cheating, or finding her exams on Chegg, she invested a great deal of time over the summer creating quizzes in D2L using randomized questions from her question banks, and working with the Quizzes tool to mitigate potential issues as much as she could. The time investment she feels was worth it, “I would rather do a lot of work than get upset by cheating incidents.”
Susan spent a lot of time working on ways to connect her students, and to help them build community, but she finds the lack of face to face connection difficult. She allocated participation marks for students to use the Discussion tool in D2L to post an introduction to their class and to read and comment on classmates’ introductions, and asked students to post a Profile picture in Collaborate to make their virtual classrooms more inviting. “I did a lot of things to make the students feel included, to feel supported by peers, to make connections…And when I didn’t have enough time to do one-on-one interviews, I did group interviews. So they sign up and they hear what other people are saying…so they feel that they are not alone” For Susan, supporting her students is a most important job she has as an instructor: “As an educator, I want my students to feel that it’s ok to make mistakes because that’s how they learn, but they have to feel safe [first]. I feel it’s my job to make them feel safe to feel uncomfortable while studying a difficult subject.”
Susan had a lot of advice for faculty getting ready to teach online for the first time, from preparing how your class is divided between live sessions and videos/asynchronous, to how to think about exams, to how important it is to be present for your students (using the News tool, for example), but what struck me particularly were her comments about time management. “We cannot assume all students understand time management,” so be clear about what they should be doing every week. “I use the calendar in D2L, on top of a pacing schedule, so it pops up reminders for them, for example, your lab will be due in two days….However, do not send them too many emails – they get too many and…will be overwhelmed.” And most of all “be accessible but have boundaries.”
Susan also noted the importance of having support and the right equipment to reduce the stress of teaching online. “One major reason that my online teaching transition went smoothly was because I have the tablet PC that my department chair obtained for us through a pilot project just before the pandemic. Another major reason is that I received sufficient supported from eLearning throughout last year; I asked many how-to questions and in turn I got as many quick and helpful responses. I also think being in a network or a community, as well as getting timely feedback from students around what is working and what’s not is important to online teaching and learning success.”
When I asked how Susan feels now about online teaching, she says she is tired, but that doesn’t mean she won’t continue to use some of the things she built into her courses moving forward. She even would like to teach another online course again! That being said, Susan is looking forward to seeing her students face to face as well. So, maybe this is an opportunity to explore the best of both worlds 🙂