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Spring Term’s Online Instruction had its ‘Ups and Downs’, But We’re Looking Forward

By: Andrew Rutland

This past August, the University of Waterloo released the results of a survey they conducted to check the pulse of its student body after a tumultuous term of online learning. The Spring 2020 semester was the university’s first remote academic term supported entirely by online instruction and according to the survey, 60% of students felt that “Spring term had ‘its ups and downs’”. That’s not hard to believe when one considers how quickly the university had to act regarding the upcoming term. Indeed, this past semester was a hastily planned and hard to monitor experiment in online learning, in which all of us – students, staff and faculty – were the subjects. 

“I had, maybe… four to six weeks to prepare?” recalls Dr. Maria Strack, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, and instructor of the Spring term course GEOG 304: Carbon in the Biosphere.

Normally taught as an intensive field session spent in the waters and woods around Waterloo, GEOG 304 was offered completely online this summer. “Pretty much all my material had to be redeveloped. While I would normally have a little bit of prep for some of the field sites and some of the field equipment, this was like every assignment needed to be rewritten. Every presentation needed to be completely redone” she said.

So while students were wrapping up the tail ends of their Winter terms, taking online exams and struggling to find co-ops for the approaching term, course instructors were also busy completely overhauling their courses for online learning.

While instructors have near complete control of their courses, there was some direction given from the university to deliver course asynchronously. In a message originally sent to course instructors before the spring term by Vice-Presidents David Davidi and Jeff Casello, and Registrar Catherine Newell Kelly includes the following passage in defence of the asynchronous learning model:

During terms where remote instruction is required, our students will be in many time zones, in unpredictable living circumstances, and often with unreliable access to the internet… what is required, in the name of fairness to our students, is that students must be able to achieve the learning outcomes from a class asynchronously.

“There was a pretty big push to make sure that as many elements were asynchronously delivered as possible” confirmed Dr. Daniel Cockayne, instructor of the spring term courses GEOG 202: Geography of the Global Economy and GEOG 411: The Digital Economy. “The more elements of the course that could be asynchronous, the more accessible the course would be.”

While the benefits to accessibility with asynchronous instruction is easy to see, the university’s survey results showed that a shift to asynchronous course delivery was also a challenge for some students. Respondents said that independent learning was one of the reasons completing their online courses took more time, and that without the structure of attending classes, keeping track of multiple courses became difficult. For Dr. Cockayne, trying to maintain a sense of order and predictability were two of the main principles that he considered when crafting his course.

 “One was consistency, and the other was structure. Those were really important” he opined. “We are still in a global pandemic and the world is a really frightening place right now, so any opportunity to introduce consistency and structure, I think is good.”

For his classes, this strategy included weekly videos outlining the week’s content and expectations, as well as checklists students could follow so they knew exactly what they needed to do each week. Dr. Cockayne says this is something that students seemed to appreciate, and acknowledges the particular challenge presented by multiple asynchronous online courses.

Karen Chen

“I had a number of students thank me for how well structured the course was” he said. “And I think it can be confusing, especially if one course is using multiple platforms. Theoretically, I could have been teaching students who were taking four or five courses, each of which was asking for a different set of digital platforms”

Students didn’t only rely on professors to provide structure, however. Many found themselves changing their own behaviours in the face of this new educational delivery style. In a survey conducted by The Radicle among Faculty of Environment students before this Fall term, respondents told us about new habits they picked up since campus closed. The majority of students (58.6%) reported maintaining a regular set of working hours and a routine, and others included scheduled breaks in their day, or maintained dedicated office spaces if they could.

But even with consistency, a lack of face to face time still presented challenges for students. According to UW’s survey, many students struggled with fewer opportunities to ask questions, and 61% reported feeling disconnected from classmates, a sentiment shared by professors.

 “We also feel very disconnected from the students” shared Dr. Strack. “I would post announcements every week sort of saying like: ‘Hope you’re doing well! Let us know if you have questions.’ But usually we get nothing in reply. So you really have very little interaction”.

For Dr. Strack, one of the best parts of a field course is cohort building; the connection students make when they spend most of every day together getting messy in the field. She tried to connect with her students and keep them engaged with one another by assigning group projects and making time to meet with students when they had questions. Dr. Strack also tried to emulate some of the other benefits of the usual GEOG 304 in the online realm:

“So they had, for example, photos of the vegetation cover so they could estimate what the vegetation cover is. And then they had videos of the equipment actually making the measurements so that they would have to collect the data from the video the same way that they would collect the data from equipment in the field” she explained.

via twitter @wetland_GHG

           Dr. Strack sees the potential in online course delivery for making field courses more accessible to students, who may not be able to travel to the field, or who want to take the course during the Winter term where data collection in the field is more challenging. Dr. Cockayne also thinks that the pandemic forcing campuses to turn to remote learning could be a boon for the accessibility of higher education. 

“I suspect we’re going to see more ways to earn a degree, or more ways to take classes online…” he pondered. “Any way that we can make degrees more accessible to more people who, you know, may not want or be able to move to a university campus for a variety of reasons… that’s good”.

           But still, even with acknowledging some benefits to online instruction, Dr. Cockayne maintains that his preference is for in-person instruction, and imagines many instructors feel the same way. As for Dr. Strack, she seconds that professors are also frustrated with the online environment and urges students to reach out to their professors if they have with concerns about their courses.

“It’s also hard for us, and we’re just trying, you know. I think everyone’s just trying do their best” she confessed. “We’re happy to talk and work through better ways of doing things.”On September 22nd, President Feridun Hamdullahpur announced that the Winter 2021 term will look much like the Spring and Fall terms this year. With no end in sight to online learning, hopefully both students and instructors can continue to apply the lessons they both learned this past summer and treat each other with empathy for as long as this “new normal” remains.    

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