One course, one instructor, many delivery methods
Written and designed by Mona Maxwell, Senior Instructional Designer
Edited by Nancy Fischer
Image from Getty Images
Small “icebreakers”, little WebEx boxes and a “like” for remote learning
Did you receive a “crash course” in delivering your curriculum a completely different way last year? For some, this might have been your first experience teaching classes remotely.
In Johnson’s 2019 study of Canadian universities and colleges, “Online course registrations grew by around 10% between 2016-17 to 2017-18… in all regions of the country, among all sizes of institutions, and among all types of institutions” (p. 10). Tony Bates adds that, “In March and April 2020, however, all instructors had to move to at least emergency online learning. That was a cathartic moment.” (Bates…)
And now that the cathartic moment has happened, let the reflection begin. I met an instructor who has a wealth of experience teaching the same course to a large group of students in a wide variety of delivery methods, including face-to-face, online (referred to as “distance” by this instructor) and remote. I asked them to share their invaluable reflections and advice and the following is what I learned. I hope this article “breaks the ice” for you to share your experience as candidly as this instructor has.
Tell us what we need to know about your course and its context.
Author: This is an introductory level course that has existed for many years. Although the course name, number and much of the content has changed over time, this is not a new course. In-person and distance sections of the course are offered each year.
Part of the context of the course is the high enrollment. These are big classes! The in-person section of the class that is usually offered in the Fall Term has an enrollment of between 230 and 250 students. The distance section usually has between 150 and 175 students. In the Fall 2020 Term, only the distance section was offered, and the class had 350 students. That was new. The first remote offering of the class in the Winter Term had 150 students. So again, these are big classes and that limits some of the tools that we can effectively use in the class. You can do a lot, but you still can’t do the same things that you can do with, say, 25 students.
My personal context, or what I have learned to realize as a privilege, is that I have delivered the course in a variety of modes: in-person delivery in Winnipeg… in other communities; in person two or three times a week; in person six hours every two weeks; weekend college offerings – a variety of different contexts. I have been teaching the course by distance for many years. That probably gave me an edge over those who had never taught via distance and those who were teaching but weren’t using the learning management system very much.
An important part of the context of the change to offering this and other courses remotely is that this has not occurred in a normative sense where the learning institution has willingly made the change, this is all going on in the context of a global pandemic. Students and instructors/professors are dealing with a lot of anxiety in many areas of their life. It is one thing to say, “Okay, next year, we want to see about teaching this in a different way.” This is about, “There’s a pandemic going on and changes need to be made very quickly.” It is important to recognize that there is so much uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety that is associated with this context.
How was the experience of teaching the same course online and face to face?
Author: I do distinguish between “remote” (i.e. scheduled class times) and “distance.” I think of the transition from face-to-face to remote learning with scheduled class times because that is what the transition was for me. I have been teaching by “distance” for years.
However, I certainly did do some things differently even with the distance course. Ensuring more and more interaction in the course was important because I knew that the students’ experience in university was so completely different than it would have been prior to the pandemic.
Many of the students I have in that distance course are first-year students and so they needed more connection and more interaction. Course announcements went up like crazy [and] paying even more attention to the discussion forums where students could interact with me, as well as with each other, was important. For switching from in-person instruction to remote (in terms of scheduled class times), I probably initially underestimated how different that would be. A big difference is that there is a different type of interaction with students. In the “in-person class”, students come up to you before and after class to talk while some students are more willing to ask questions in class.
I found it, at least at the beginning, more difficult to assess student understanding. In the context of a lecture, students are in the classroom and you can literally look at the faces [but] in the video classes in WebEx, you look at the little boxes!
You have to do things a little differently to address that. Some students were more willing to ask questions in the online environment. I utilized the chat a lot. They love it, especially if you start. If you ask them something, anything – “How is the weather?” Then they will start chatting to each other. But a big difference was to adjust to the different type of interaction.
What do you think are the biggest differences for the students between face-to-face and online delivery?
Author: Students don’t have the same type of interaction as they do with other students, which I really believe is an important source of learning. We can try to create some of that through group discussions, but really, they are not going to be talking in the same way as they would in the classroom. If we are in the classroom and I break them into small groups for discussions, I wander around and listen to what they are saying. Half of what they are talking about is not about the discussion, and that is fine. It’s social, right? In that context, they do meet each other and do sometimes develop friendships and acquaintances and maybe form study groups. I think that happens in the online setting as well. They develop chat groups outside of the class and, I am sure, still form some different forms of study groups and what not.
Given this context of a global pandemic and how social lives have been crushed, students have had more time. They read the text earlier, they review their notes and the key questions more because they are interested, and… what else is there to do? Some of the students said, “I really did have more time to study!”
As an instructor, what remained the same for you regardless of the delivery method?
Author: The general content of the course remained the same. There is a necessity to impart that foundational information of the course. This is an introductory course. You want to meet the objectives. I didn’t introduce different types of information.
I still went through the same process of looking at learning objectives and thinking, “Can we do things the same… will everything still match up?”
What were the biggest changes in the design of the course when transitioning to remote learning?
Author: I have always used [group discussions] in class and asynchronously in the distance course. In the distance course, the discussions were great. In class, what I used to do is break the students into small groups and throw out a question or course concept. They explore and discuss the question or concept for about 10 minutes. One person in the group would take a few notes and [the group] was actually given some credit for these discussions. That is a little harder to do in scheduled remote classes that are offered online. I could create an assignment where they have to go and have discussions outside of class time and still have the same grading process. I didn’t do that. A difficult part was not recognizing [that] you could blend things more. Not everything needs to be completed during the scheduled class time.
I tried to keep it in my mind that, “This is like an in-person class …this is actual class time. We are going to class”. I might do that differently next time… and provide more student interaction outside of class time. Since this was in the context of a global pandemic, I didn’t want to create more hassle for the students. But next time, rather than restricting activities from 6:00 – 8:45, maybe it would be okay to have more time out of class. Maybe it would be okay to end earlier if it meant that students have 15 minutes to participate in those discussions.
A challenge–possibly for everyone last year in the summer and even in the fall – was finding adequate information on some of the tools that are available within the learning platform. An example of that is I did a workshop on assessment and rubrics and … at that time, I was told that if you were marking using rubrics, you had to be online while you are doing it… and that is primarily why I didn’t choose that. I do see now that you have access to mark offline as well.
Again, we were thrown into this so suddenly that nobody had answers for everything.
What advice would you give to instructors who want to design a high-quality course?
Author: Play with the tools. Experiment. Really, really experiment and recognize that we are all nervous when we begin and if something isn’t working, change it. Not necessarily the content of the course, but change the delivery. If you are finding that polls are working for some things and not for others, use them for some things. A lot of it was experimenting and learning while doing. My advice would be don’t be scared to change something.
Experiment. Don’t be afraid of technology. Everyone is adapting to this so it is ok if you are not perfect. I will tell students to [play with the tools] so why shouldn’t I, as an instructor, do that?”
Students are quite receptive if you say, “We’ve been trying this and it hasn’t been working very well, so let’s try something different”. You can’t do that with the assessments, necessarily, because they are outlined at the beginning of the term, but in terms of delivery, you can. Part of the whole process was learning and hearing what other professors are doing as well. Some of it I agree with and some of it I don’t. For some, if a class is twice per week, they are having class only once per week. For me, when we are scheduling it as a remote class, I am not sure that the delivery or the time that you are with the students should change that much.
That is one of my fears. There are some people who are recording their lectures so that they can just “push play” the next time the course is offered and I think that needs to be examined.
What advice can you give to identify when things aren’t working?
Author: Students don’t necessarily identify it, but I can identify it. If there is no response in the chat, then perhaps they are not comfortable or I need to ask the question or introduce the chat in a different way, maybe start with something silly – almost unrelated to the course. Let’s chat about a current event or the weather. Once they start posting messages in the chat room, sometimes you can’t get them to stop! You are thinking, “Quit putting messages in the chat… because you have to try to pay attention to the chat while the lecture is going on. In some ways, it was kind of fun.” (laughing)
An example of an icebreaker at the beginning was, “What are some of the advantages of remote learning?” They responded with comments like, “You don’t have to pay for parking!” They certainly know.
At the end of the course, when I was thanking students for adapting to the switch to remote learning… a few of them said, “I like remote learning!”
What other advice can you give?
Author: Polls are helpful and you don’t have to be an expert in technology. Play with it so you can do combinations of things. They can be a way to interact, but also a way to assess learning. Each class I would use a few sample test questions as a way to see if students were understanding the material. The chat can also be really helpful. I would ask questions and tell students that they could unmute themselves to answer or just respond in the chat. I didn’t do the whiteboard because of the large classes. I don’t know how effective that would be.
Make sure you are available and that [students] know you are available. I still maintained office hours in Webex. They were open. They were not appointment-based with the understanding that if students wanted to come at that time, they were welcome. If that time didn’t work for them, we could schedule another time or rely on email. We did that a lot. I think students like knowing that you are there at a regular time each week that they could join the meeting to ask a question. Sometimes no students attended the office hours. But I had the office hour meeting open on a laptop set up next to my PC, so I work on other things. That was helpful.
One thing I think is, I got the sense that students are experiencing some of the same constraints online and in person. Students may still be reluctant to ask questions for the same reasons they are reluctant in an in-person class. They don’t want to ask what they think is a “stupid question.” They don’t want to stand out. Not everyone is an extrovert; some are shy. However, I did notice that some students would use the private chat to ask or respond to questions during class time. Maybe this was beneficial for students who would not otherwise feel comfortable speaking out in class.
The support that instructors and faculty have had is wonderful, but there are still staff resource constraints, and if we want to continue to do this in the future, we would benefit from more resources. We need more time. We need more help. In another location that I teach, the programs are smaller, and IT staff will come into your class and help with the technology. We could never do that on the main campuses. We will never have that amount of resources, but we do need more. We can teach everything online. We just have to figure out how to do it.
Thank you to the author, who not only breaks the ice in the chat forums for their students, but by candidly sharingtheir insights, has broken the ice for this highly needed discussion.
What of this can you take into your future experience as a learner, instructor, designer, or administrator?In contemplating future trends, Tony Bates further elaborates: “The difference is I see instructors deliberately designing courses to exploit the comparative benefits of both online and face-to-face teaching, and in particular, the asynchronous benefits of online learning.” (Bates…)
Johnson, N. (2019) Tracking Online Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association.
Blog: Online Learning and Distance Education Resources. Moderate by Tony Bates, Research Associate, Contact North. November 5, 2020.
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