Online methods of course delivery: A learning curve for all
By Cassie Weiss, Features Editor
Everyone is a little bit sick of hearing the term “COVID-19.” With bated breath, students and faculty have waited, hoping for a glimpse into the not-too-distant future, desperately trying to predict what the word “future” even means. As schools across the province are returning to classes in the fall, Mount Royal University stands strong in the decision made to keep most students educated through online learning methods.
Although online classes were not the reality many students wanted to face, the decision to keep campus closed may not necessarily be a bad one. According to one faculty member, this new method to subject delivery is something to settle into, being inevitable at this point.
“[The switch to online classes] has forced us to look at how we were teaching,” stated Peter Choate, program coordinator of social work at MRU. “We’ve been spending a lot of time videoing…so that we have material. We are facing that it’s causing us to question if we have been teaching in the most effective way.”
Choate says it is a steep learning curve for many of MRU’s faculty. Not all of the professors employed by the university have experience teaching online, and it does become much harder to connect with the students when distance separates.
An important thing Choate explains is not just the difficulty in building a relationship with the professor through a computer screen, but also the difficulty in building those relationships with fellow students. For students not in their first year at the university, these informal supports are already in place due to the colleagues made in previous years, but students entering for the first time do not get that luxury.
“Our role is to maximize our learning platform as much as we can,” says Choate. “Part of it is on faculty to create mechanisms to gain those relationships. We have to be intentional about that. Regardless of the learning environment, the key is to establish relationships.”
Discussing the ideas of online office hours, discussion rooms for students to participate in and online seminars, there are multiple ways of creating space for students to ask questions and decide how best to tackle the upcoming semester.
Unlike the rush to online last year, as COVID-19 forced closed campuses across the province with a month left in the school year, Choate states the preparation over the summer has led to a more developed approach when it comes to assignments and testing.
“It was uncertainty by the moment last year. The university would send out an email, and then the health officer would change the [information] and three hours later you would get a new email.
“The ground shifted by the day. We were making it up as we were moving along. Most of us would say we did the best we could do in a crisis. Right now, though, it does like we are going in prepared.”
Although he jokes about asking him again in a month if he feels the preparation was enough, Choate seems pretty confident in the ability for students to roll with the punches and get things done, despite the new challenges that come with a shift to online learning.
“We are working our way through some ethical issues that have both positive and negative stresses to them. There has been some discussion about the ethics of exams and academic integrity.
“Also, maybe there are things students don’t feel comfortable showing, but are now on camera. You are now invited into everyone’s space. Over the course of winter and spring, I was meeting people’s spouses, children, pets…”
Taking it from first-hand experience, Choate is not one to ignore when a furry friend pops up into the camera screen, but it still is a distraction that can get in the way. Add in the possibility of students not having access to high-end electronic availability, such as high-speed internet in more remote communities, and there can be quite a struggle in finding the most effective solution.
Even with these concerns, the enrolment rate at MRU has still increased, according to Choate. Not privy to the exact reasons why, the numbers seem to speak for themselves when it comes to the assurance students must feel returning to school in September.
With some programs making exceptions for students to be on campus, Choate states that MRU has done a fantastic job at analyzing what courses and classes need to be in person. And for everything else that does have to remain online, the Academic Development Centre has been putting out a ton of material to aid best they can.
“No professor is going to say, ‘Hey, I got this down.’ If students think something isn’t working very well, and have creative ideas, start sharing these ideas. The vast majority of profs are learning and exploring this pedagogy as the students are.”
Choate wants the students to be co-creators of a pedagogy that works, and to utilize the abundance of academic and wellness resources that the university has to offer. Online access to the library, and the subject experts that come with each section of material, is one thing he stresses.
“It’s vital at this point to make sure students are aware. Faculty has an obligation to make sure students know about those systems, and for the students to figure out how to use those resources available.”
Not as uncertain as the end of the last year, there is still a whole lot of unknown that comes with the upcoming semester, but Choate, along with many of his fellow colleagues, are here for the students to help transition in the smoothest way possible.
“The further behind you get, the harder it is to catch up. The motivation is in not isolating yourself. [This year] will be really hard if you become isolated.”