Robin is Program Lead and an instructor in the Community, Family & Child Studies Program at Camosun College. He is in one of those more unique positions because he was not only teaching during the pandemic, but also supporting other faculty in his role as lead. He also has had a lot of experience as a student taking online courses, which didn’t necessarily prepare him for the role of online teacher: “it always looked difficult to me, and wasn’t something I wanted to pursue as a teacher. [And while] that experience helped me [understand the] student perspective, it also hindered me because I had a preconceived notion of how it worked.” But, when the college moved online, so did Robin, without a second thought. One thing he did mention to me was how excited he is to now be part of the long history of distance education in Canada, which indeed has been around for over 130 years, moving from correspondence, to televised, to teleconferencing, and now to the Internet. “For Camosun to be a part of that, to me really connects with what a community college should be.”
After getting through the sudden shift at the end of the Winter 2020 term, Robin says: “early on, I realized that September was going to be online and…I [realized that I] couldn’t just shift exactly what I was doing face-to-face classes to an online course, it had to be something different. So I grabbed everything from CETL (Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) that I could … and just focused on getting myself and my courses ready for fall, figuring out what tools [I would need], what’s the best practice, and working on my courses.” When fall hit, one of Robin’s big concerns was how to build instructor presence, without getting so involved and engaged in everything to the point of being overwhelmed. As a result, he used a blend of synchronous and asynchronous modes, every three weeks having a live Q&A session rather than delivering a lot of content live. “There were so many students who had connectivity problems, I didn’t want them worrying about that in addition to the content.” Every Monday he added a News post describing the week ahead, summarized the discussions (rather than answering all the postings all the time), and asked for feedback from his students both in the middle and at the end of the term.
Robin says that finding creative ways of engaging students regularly is still a challenge for him. Like so many other instructors, he still wonders “How much is the right engagement for them to be working together? How often should they be in small groups? How often should they be on their own?” He also finds that in an online class, it’s harder to know if they are there, because “there are some students that will come to you, but there are other students you don’t hear from very often, and who when you reach out to the, you don’t hear much back,” very different from a face to face class where it can be easier to develop those relationships. That silence in both the synchronous and asynchronous environments worries Robin that this relationship building piece is being lost. Supporting students to navigate the online course is also a challenge. Robin tries “to take that [support] role with students, being aware, and looking for those things that might be missing.
In addition to working with students to understand their role in the teaching and learning process as he normally does, Robin has added a new layer of explaining to students what’s going on for him, for example, why is he organizing the course the way he is, and inviting feedback so he can make adjustments. He also says that “the online experience has forced me to consider what’s most important and how can I slow things down…to make sure students have time to grab on to what they need to grab onto. And I think maintaining that attitude in the face-to-face experience [will be] important [moving forward].”
There have been some rewards as well, teaching in this new format. Robin teaches communication skills, and there is no doubt that being forced to communicate online has developed new opportunities. In class “we’ve been talking about all the online skills that they have been developing and how they are related to other types of communication, how those skills parallel what they will be doing face-to-face and how important those skills are.” In addition, Robin has felt a strong sense of equality online, for example, seeing all students being able to contribute equally. “In the online environment, all the students are getting a chance to engage. In the discussion groups, I can see how they’re all engaging with the content, [something] I couldn’t with my 30 students in the [face to face] class.” And there is also, a sense of being in it together in the online classroom. “Students, faculty and staff are all figuring it out together, and you want to impress upon the students that you are with them, learning with them. This is the place to experiment – that’s what learning is about here, trying things out…through the stresses of the COVID world, the stresses of online learning. [As] my favorite quote, Steven Stills says, love the one you’re with – this is where we are, and let’s enjoy it.”
Robin has a few words of advice and encouragement for faculty, saying first to remember that, “we’re pretty adaptable.” In spite of not wanting to teach an online course before COVID, when he had to, he discovered that “we can make pretty great things happen.” Also, “see yourself and your students as able…and remember that the important pieces of teaching, the engagement, the active learning pieces, our role in creating an environment that has both a balance of safety and challenge – none of those things have changed. They are all still there, it just looks a little different.”
Robin says he will never go back to using D2L in such a limited way again. “I think I’ve got an understanding of the platform and the tools that I know that my students have missed out in the past because I didn’t use them. I’m sure I will continue to use asynchronous content and make sure that there are multiple ways for students to engage with the material, more ways for students to engage with material outside of specific class time.” And in his role as Program Lead, he is looking forward to having conversations with his program faculty around what their program might look like in the future. “I definitely think using online tools and how to create engagement through those tools [will be] part of the conversation now. Whether we do something different or not, it’s just going to be part of our conversation.”