By Andrea Chandler, Professor, Department of Political Science
As a professor in the Department of Political Science here at Carleton, I made a sudden shift from in-class teaching to online teaching in mid-March 2020. Like my colleagues at Carleton, and at institutions elsewhere in Canada and the world, I had not expected to have to make this shift so quickly, but it became necessary because of the public health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 virus.
I adapted to this situation as best as I could, motivated by the desire to do the right thing by our students. While I would consider myself to be just average in terms of my skill set for online teaching (having taught a blended course in 2015), my transition was made smoother by the fact that I have long been accustomed to doing a portion of my work at home. Although I needed to scramble to learn some new technologies, I was well set up in having a laptop, laser printer, good Wi-Fi, iPhone and iPad at home. So, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
This term, I was responsible for teaching two courses: the first was a first-year political science course, in which over 250 students were enrolled, and in which I was assisted by seven wonderful teaching assistants (TA’s). The second was a fourth-year seminar, with 20 or so students, all of whom were working on substantial research projects by the time scheduled classes ceased. I wrote this blog post not to give any expert advice on online teaching, but to record some reflections I’ve had on the experience of going online in the past month. With classes over, I am waiting for final assignments to come in, and I felt the need to record some of my experiences so that I can learn from them in the future.
The Importance of a Stable and Compassionate Presence
The first observation that I would offer is that in light of the stress surrounding the COVID-19 crisis, I felt it was less important to try to impart course content in these last few weeks of the term, and more important to try to provide a stable, compassionate presence in the students’ lives. I ditched the lesson plans and the exam that I had intended to offer, and concentrated on reviewing concepts introduced in previous lessons and providing extra guidance on assigned readings.
When the university first announced that it was cancelling scheduled classes, I brainstormed some strategies for moving forward, but I didn’t know what students wanted and needed. So, I asked them: What do you want and need? I used the simple tool in cuLearn for asking students to indicate their preferences from a list of choices. As a result, I was able to make decisions that allowed students in both courses a set of different options for how to access course material. For example, in my first-year course, I made lecture capture (Kaltura) videos in which I provided audio narration, but also provided PDFs of the slides and the audio transcripts for students who wished to minimize the time they spent online.
The second point that I would like to share is that I have been concerned about the disparities that might emerge between students in this extraordinary situation. The COVID-19 situation has made it clear that online learning has enabled classes to continue in a situation where the regular operation of the university was disrupted. At the same time, students might vary in their access to computer resources, to reliable Wi-Fi, to quiet study space, and in their family responsibilities.
I have done my level best to be generous with extensions and to do what I can to be helpful to individual students. Often, one can find simple practical solutions to assessment problems. At the same time, it is more important than ever to ask students how they are doing, to ask them what they need, to answer their emails really quickly, and even to post the occasional cat photo to cuLearn.
Never Forget Engagement
My third observation relates to engagement. We rightly focus a great deal on student engagement as essential to learning, and online learning requires more imaginative ways to create student engagement. But it is important to consider the professor’s engagement as well.
The last three weeks have made me realize just how much I enjoy being in the classroom, and just how much I consider group in-person discussion to be essential to learning (to a certain extent, this is because debate and deliberation are central my discipline of political science). I have really missed being in those classrooms with the students, even if this has only been for a fairly short period of time.
Online teaching has been fine in a pinch, but if I was to do it again in the future, I would want to find ways to make it more lively, more energizing. And if I feel that there is nothing better than being in a classroom with students, that is a good indicator that I am in the right occupation at the right university.
Meeting Learning Objectives
My final comment relates to learning objectives. When I modified my courses so as to finish the semester online, I reflected on how best to meet the learning objectives of the course while finding a manageable path forward for completing the course under difficult conditions. The problem is that these learning objectives were developed on the assumption that in-class teaching would be the norm.
So, although I found great working solutions for now, at times it has felt a bit like putting a square peg into a round hole. Do online courses merit a distinct set of learning objectives? While there might be no perfect online substitute for in-class debate, online teaching might offer possibilities for achieving other objectives. I don’t have any template for what those online learning objectives might look like, but I would be curious to learn more about what the various possibilities might be. For example, a class research project, in which each student or a small group explores one empirical piece of a multi-faced current political problem, could be interesting in a virtual environment.
Of course, these are only my personal reflections, and there are bigger questions that can be asked about online teaching at Carleton University moving forward. How do students feel about online learning, and how large is the demand for these kinds of courses? Will the university encourage more online learning in the future? If so, then it would be valuable to have a broad consultation on online teaching and lessons learned.
For me, the past few weeks have been intense and emotional. For example, I feel especially sad that I don’t get to say goodbye in person to the fourth-year students who are graduating. In my opinion, when things settle down, it would be beneficial to have broader conversations on lessons learned. In writing this blog post, I have attempted to make sense of my own experience. I hope others will find my observations to be of value.