David Vergote, challenge tamer

David Vergote, recipient of the "2021 Covid-19 Remote Teaching Award", shares how Campus Saint-Jean adapted to the pandemic.

27 September 2022

The transition to distance learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in extraordinary efforts by UofA faculty. In recognition of these outstanding academic staff members, the University of Alberta presented a "COVID-19 Distance Education Award" to those faculty members who demonstrated exceptional teaching skills during this challenging time.

This award recognizes the tremendous efforts of faculty who continued to teach with excellence and dedication throughout the pandemic, while exemplifying the values of the University of Alberta: excellence in teaching, creativity and innovation, and providing an intellectually enriching educational environment for all learners and, above all, an unwavering commitment to serving the public good in the face of unprecedented adversity and challenges. 

As a testament to the excellence of teaching at Faculté Saint-Jean, David Vergote, Professor of Education, is among the recipients of this award. Originally from France but based in Alberta for almost twenty years, Professor Vergote has been recognized for his teaching quality, compassion and remarkable flexibility - qualities that benefit all those with whom he works and that reverberate throughout the teaching and learning community at Campus Saint-Jean (CSJ).

The qualities of David Vergote's teaching have already paid off: one of his students, Matthieu Zolonde, conducted a research project under his supervision during the Winter 2022 semester and presented his findings at the Eureka Undergraduate Research Symposium in the form of a poster entitled "Species-specific behavioral changes upon exposure to UV light and to a pollutant in three Alberta leech species". For his work and presentation, Matthieu was awarded 3rd prize among the posters presented at this conference organized at the University of Alberta and gathering a wide variety of science projects conducted by students from many faculties.

Despite his busy schedule, David Vergote agreed to answer a few questions to give us a glimpse into the challenges and future of distance education.

COVID came on suddenly - how did you adapt to distance teaching?

The consequences associated with COVID did arrive very suddenly in March 2020. In one weekend, we (faculty and students alike) had to switch from face-to-face from face-to-face teaching to completely online teaching, for which we had only limited limited preparation for. My experience with online teaching was then reduced to a course in Spring 2019 that I had worked on all year to prepare for, not just a few days. We had no choice, however, and had to do the best we could to ensure that the then-anxious students were not penalized. After this period of crisis, we had a little more time to prepare for the 2020/2021 year online and to think more calmly about the strategies to adopt. For this, the training sessions organized by CSJ's technology department were extremely useful in presenting us with different possible pedagogical approaches.

It was therefore necessary to become familiar with many tools and to prepare videos presenting the theory or explaining how to solve genetic problems, for example. In order to combine business with pleasure, I chose to prepare videos for my field ecology course by planning my summer around trips across the province to film myself in places illustrating the topics discussed (Rockies, forests around Edmonton or boreal further north, prairies, more arid region around Drumheller, near lakes and rivers...). It was a lot of planning but I also had fun by inserting some funny sequences and sometimes involving my daughters (and also my cat who never asked permission to go in front of my webcam during my classes anyway!) I must say, however, that I really missed the contact with the students. It is thanks to them that I love my job and for them that I try to do it as well as possible. Anyway, I've never spent so much time talking to myself in my basement!

What were the main challenges that you encountered?

There were many challenges to this move to online teaching. As students had to adapt to this new form of learning, we all fumbled to find the right strategies to provide quality instruction, and these strategies could be different depending on the nature of the courses. I made some choices, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, that were not the best (and I apologize to the students for that) but then I adjusted my strategies for the following semesters. This meant being flexible from one semester to the next. Another challenge was to try not to be too ambitious especially for the first year of the pandemic. With so much material to prepare, sometimes the new format of the material (video for example) was given to students later than expected, which was frustrating for the students. One of the biggest challenges, however, was keeping the students motivated and engaged. They were very much on their own and it is often difficult to manage time effectively and stay motivated over a long period of time under these conditions. It was therefore even more important than usual to listen to them and to be understanding when they encountered difficulties. I sincerely admire the courage and determination of the students who had to go through this difficult period.

What is the future of distance learning?

The forced online education of the past few years has opened up new horizons. We have all learned a great deal from the pandemic period, but what are we going to do with these new experiences? There is no denying that distance learning has advantages over face-to-face learning, particularly in terms of flexibility and student overhead, and it will now become part of the range of pedagogical strategies available for university courses. At the same time, I believe that nothing will replace the benefit to students of direct contact with other students and with professors for their individual maturation. Being exposed to different opinions, ways of working, or experiences that are easier to discuss in person, in or out of class, rather than on a forum or on Zoom shapes us all as individuals. The university experience is not just about the accumulation of knowledge through exams and grades, but is first and foremost about personal growth into the citizens of tomorrow.

How is Campus Saint-Jean prepared to meet the educational challenges of the future?

Campus Saint-Jean has many strengths in its ability to not only embrace new ways of teaching but also to imagine innovative solutions to educational challenges. These strengths are built not only on the multidisciplinary nature of CSJ, but also on the enthusiasm and dedication of its staff towards students. It is undeniable that the fact that professors with very different backgrounds and experiences (in education, science and the arts) work together in the same faculty facilitates pedagogical innovation. Also, when new ways of teaching are adopted, as was the case during the pandemic, the human size of our classes allows professors to be more available, more attentive to students and thus more responsive to their needs.

I believe that CSJ is perfectly equipped to face and anticipate the educational challenges of the future and to continue to prepare today's students for tomorrow's world in the best possible way.