Coming Out of Crisis Mode: Bettering the Remote Learning Environment

By John Nychka

By John Nychka

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This is Part One in the Centre for Teaching and Learning's four-part series, Teaching Online.Teaching Online.

When I first moved my fourth-year core course in Materials Engineering to remote delivery in March 2020 I felt like I was speaking to an empty room. That feeling persisted longer than I would have hoped. I thought that meeting synchronously online was going to be amazing, but the environment was different; online learning was slower, and not everything worked. I expected to have the same discussions we had been having face to face, prior to the move to remote delivery. I was totally, and completely wrong in my assumptions. It took only one class session for me to realize I needed to go beyond simply being able to deliver education remotely - I needed a better way to achieve remote learning - I couldn't just lift and place my course online - I needed to shift my teaching. And, I wasn't alone.

Since the University of Alberta moved to remote instruction I have heard, read, and had many conversations about how to improve the remote learning experience. At the heart of these conversations is a desire to focus on changing pedagogy (the principles, method, and practice of teaching and learning). Without diminishing the challenges we face using technology for remote delivery, I encourage my colleagues to think about pedagogical approaches and consider some updates. For many of us, remote and online environments require thinking differently about teaching than we have in the past - and going beyond posting our typical "classroom" materials online is important. The pedagogy of online learning is an established field in education, though it may be new to some of us. For example, online pedagogy ideas can be found on teachonline.ca (out of Ontario) and a remote instruction resource center can be found on eab.com. Our own Centre for Teaching and Learning also offers a wealth of resources (more on this below).

So, how do we go beyond just delivering remote education? One strategy relates to the age old question: how does learning happen? We learn through experience - and we have certainly had a whole lot of experience lately - however, experience alone is not enough. Critical reflection on experience is how learning happens. My suggestion is that we all set aside time to intentionally reflect on our teaching experiences during this extraordinary time to critically identify and check the accuracy and validity of our teaching assumptions (Brookfield, 2017). Collect information for reflection, feedback, and assessment that focuses on specific areas you wish to develop (remote delivery pedagogy for instance). This information might come from your students, your colleagues, the literature, or yourself (Brookfield, 2017, 2002). There are several ways for instructors to critically reflect on their teaching practice - if you're curious, here's a guide to get you started.

Of course, we cannot achieve all this alone - nor have we. There are many resources available to help you address the continuing challenges posed by remote delivery. Your colleagues are great resources, and I strongly encourage discussing ideas, creative solutions, and innovations with them. In addition, Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a wealth of teaching and learning resources and training opportunities to address remote delivery, such as: a brief introduction to remote teaching, alternatives to final exams, and a self-directed eClass course on teaching and learning online. If there are topics of interest not currently available in the CTL resources, you can always contact CTL (ctl@ualberta.ca) or submit a consultation request.

I also recognize there are many teaching contexts beyond the typical lecture-based classroom at the U of A, and I don't pretend to know them all. For this reason, I encourage you to take the CTL Survey about priorities for supporting instructors. The survey results will be used to better understand what else you might need, and to inform planning and resources through the Centre.

The rapid shift to remote delivery at the U of A has been miraculous. It reflects an incredible effort from professors, instructors, TAs, students, and staff across the university. I want to thank all of you. As we grapple with our new normal and turn our attention to the semesters ahead, please know how grateful our community continues to be for your willingness to reflect, adapt, and better the remote learning environment.

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John Nychka

John is currently the Vice Provost (Learning Initiatives) where he leads the advancement of many of the university's initiatives related to the learning environment in areas that include experiential learning, awards for faculty excellence, blended and digital learning, and the assessment and evaluation of teaching. John's main teaching interest is the design of authentic learning opportunities, favouring the use of messy and open-ended problems to promote synthesis of existing knowledge and the development of judgement and metacognition. John is an alumnus of the University of Alberta (Metallurgical Engineering, co-op 1997) and his hobbies include photography, bicycling, and playing guitar.

CTL's Teaching Online Series: