Shannon Blanchet, ’06 BFA, ’19 MFA, is used to going with the flow. As an improv actor and U of A instructor, she must leap into the unknown. But great improv also involves a high degree of anticipation.
So when it looked like classes at the U of A, including her drama classes, might move online, she took action. On March 9, two days before the World Health Organization described the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic, Blanchet asked students with laptops to bring them into class so they could prepare.
“I told them, ‘We’re gonna learn this video-conferencing software.’ It’s a good thing to have under your belt anyway,” she says.
Her instincts were bang on. A week later, U of A faculty were delivering classes to their 40,000 students online. The unprecedented move — mirrored by post-secondary institutions across Canada and elsewhere — has prompted a host of dilemmas for both learner and lecturer: What if I don’t have a laptop? How do I keep my students busy? What’s the best way to have student discussion? Can I get away with wearing pyjama bottoms?
Put another way: thousands of virtual classrooms are taking shape, even as semesters wind down and nerves jangle in light of the biggest global health crisis in a century.
On the other side of the world, Paul Joosse, ’06 MA, ’14 PhD, has had an entire semester to figure out how his virtual classroom will work. In mid-January, the city where he lives, Hong Kong, instituted travel restrictions and school closures due to COVID-19. Joosse had only met the 53 students in his criminology course for a single in-person class. Suddenly, three times a week, they were going to share — virtually — their professor’s 460-sq-ft. apartment, which he also shares with his partner.
“Everybody’s obligations in terms of child care, caring for parents, quarantining — these things are all very disruptive to people’s lives. So I’ve tried to build in as much flexibility as possible,” says Joosse, who has taught at the University of Hong Kong since 2015.
He pre-records his lectures, which students can watch at any time, and has focused classes on discussing readings, guided by questions that students send him in advance.
“This is a complete rethinking of everything,” says Deborah Hurst, ’91 MA, ’96 PhD, dean of business at Athabasca University, where she contributed to the team that, in 1994, launched the world’s first online MBA program. Hurst says it will take time for students, teachers and academic assistants who are new to online delivery to create norms and expectations.
Teachers like Joosse and Blanchet are learning just as much as their students — maybe more. They, along with Hurst, offer a few tips for teachers everywhere:
Tip 1: Remember, not everyone is comfortable sharing their home. Make video and even audio contributions optional by incorporating the text chat option in your chosen conferencing platform. As a sociologist, Joosse recognizes that we all have our own “self-created definitions of what different spaces mean to us,” and that some students may not want their classmates “in” their personal space.
Tip 2: Keep building relationships. Remember, your students are going through a tough time adjusting to changes brought by the pandemic. If time allows, let them express themselves, even just acknowledge the tough times. Blanchet asks all her students to check in with themselves and others at the start of each class.
Tip 3: Take time to get your head into your subject matter before class. It’s easier to have all the right theories fresh in your mind if you’ve just walked from your office or a lively chat with colleagues than when there’s a pile of dirty dishes nearby. Blanchet always designates a few minutes to transition from her home life to drama instruction.
Tip 4: Create multiple opportunities for students to ask questions. When classes are in-person, a student can just raise a hand or approach you after a lecture. Joosse stays connected after every virtual class for individual or group questions and always keeps his office hours (virtually). It’s also wise to get familiar with multiple chatting platforms to account for the variety of tools students have access to.
Tip 5: Encourage participation. Hurst says moving classes online can increase the “democratization” of ideas. “It’s not just the most outspoken student, raising their hand in class, that speaks,” she says. “Everyone is expected to contribute and does so.” Instructors have many tools to drive discussion, but Hurst cautions that to design an online environment that allows for different kinds of learning and communication preferences takes a lot of thought and work.
Tip 6: Be patient and prepare to adapt. From the days of squealing dial-up modems and floppy disks in the mail, Hurst has seen online learning technology evolve to capabilities she could hardly have imagined. “The technology is there,” she says, “but maybe the culture hasn’t caught up yet.” Hurst says professors need to expect a lot of “struggle and noise” as students and teachers work out the new norms of behaviour, class by class. “This isn’t evolutionary change we’re witnessing; this is revolutionary change.”
READ MORE: Tips for university students to stay motivated for the rest of the term, and how to help children learn from home.