By: Ali Arya, Associate Professor, School of Information Technology and Associate Dean (Planning and Awards), Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs

The Fall 2020 academic term is approaching the end. While many of us transitioned to online teaching and learning at the start of COVID-19 pandemic, or went through a full online course in summer, this was the first full-load academic term that was entirely online. We prepared for this all summer, as much as we could. We had workshops on how to design and run online courses, discussed how to keep students emotionally engaged, and shared our ideas on how to balance asynchronous and synchronous activities to make sure we didn’t lose the human contact when we went online.

But nothing could fully prepare us for what was coming: having thousands of students taking full course loads without ever seeing the instructors, TAs and each other. Even for those of us who had done online courses before, this was a new experience as we were dealing with normal-size classes of students who, just like us, were isolated, who have been isolated for months, and still were taking a regular number of courses, and possibly working their jobs, online.

I am grateful for all the university efforts to support and prepare for the fall term, all the discussions and workshops, the resources, and also my own personal experience of designing and running online courses. They were all helpful and based on two sets of feedback that I collected from my students (a class of about 60 third-years), they resulted in a reasonably successful experience. But each new course we teach will in turn teach us something new, and this one certainly had major lessons to learn. While some of these lessons may not be totally new, they turned out to be more significant due to special circumstances of this term compared to previous online courses:

  • The students were taking all their courses online, so they didn’t have any in-person contact with any of their instructors and classmates.
  • Everyone had been through months of pandemic, which affected them all emotionally, physically and probably financially.

Amidst the uncertainty of future, there is one thing almost for sure and that is an online academic term in winter. So, it is important to review some of the lessons we learned this term and make sure we plan things better in winter. Here are some of the things I found out:

  • “Zoom fatigue” is real (see the articles below). I feel overwhelmed and exhausted by too much video conferencing and I’m sure students feel the same. Nobody wants to watch a live lecture online. Recorded videos are life-savers and they have to be short. Breaking a topic into segments with particular subject will make the experience a lot more manageable.
  • Keeping students emotionally engaged is critical. We knew that. But it requires listening to them. I used two midterm feedback surveys, online discussions and weekly reflection assignments to keep students engaged but also to hear what they would like to see in the course, what interests and excites them, and how they want to be engaged. Closing the feedback loop, having a real conversation, and actually acting on what we hear are needed for that engaging experience we are hoping to have.
  • Tools matter. I used a popular communication app (Discord) to facilitate communication. It worked very well and much better than online discussions on cuLearn (which I still kept as an option for more formal graded discussions). I assigned group tasks to be done on Discord that supports text, audio and video chats. My live sessions always had a task (academic or social) to be done on Discord and these were very successful and appreciated.
  • Live sessions are important to keep students engaged and have real-time communication. On the other hand, asynchronous modes of teaching and having recorded videos are also important. The balance was certainly harder than I thought. While I didn’t lecture during the live sessions and only reviewed the topics and tasks, I found myself more and more going towards having short live tutorials and examples. This was what many students would want to see and could result in them being more engaged. The drawback was unfairness to those who couldn’t attend, even though all sessions were recorded and made available.
  • Content structure can be a game-changer. We record our lectures and live sessions to make them available; we upload many examples and references to answer all possible questions the students would ask in face-to-face classes; we send emails and post announcements; we have assignments and tasks. These are all helpful but can be overwhelming too. Again, finding a balance between too much and not enough is hard, and a big help comes from content structure and organization. There are different ways to organize the content and communication in an online course and discussing them is beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say that throwing loads of material at students can result in them losing interest in accessing anything or finding it hard to find what they need. Examples of things to do are grouping tasks together, using a calendar, collecting communication into one weekly announcement, using a proper portal, and FAQ sheets.
  • Coordinating with other instructors helps. As we bombard our students with content and tasks, we should remember that there are other colleagues doing the same. Communication and awareness around what other instructors are doing will help ensure students don’t become overwhelmed.

I look forward to hearing from other instructors, and students, about their experience this term and the lessons they learned.

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