Fall is taking us back to campus but we haven’t seen the last of digital classrooms
Online learning has been knocking at the door of post-secondary education for years, but thanks to COVID-19 it finally kicked down the door without so much as a hello, put its feet up, and settled in for 16 months. Institutions were left scrambling to completely redesign how they deliver education in a matter of days.
Instructors and students say adapting to online learning has taken time, but as the fall heralds a return to face-to-face courses, calls for the increased accessibility promoted by online classes are increasing. With UVic wrapping up its fourth (and perhaps final) full term of predominantly online classes, let’s take a look at where that leaves our uninvited guest.
Adapting to online
While UVic is offering the option for instructors to continue teaching online, these exceptions are only in limited circumstances. According to a bulletin by the UVic Faculty Association, the university has mandated face-to-face classes except for large 100-level courses, courses with over 50 international students, and academic writing requirement courses. For courses within these categories, departments are encouraged to offer one section online to create equitable access.
Any other instructors wishing to teach online, whether for safety or pedagogical reasons, need to submit a request for accommodation to be approved by the University Senate. There are plans to change this. The office of the Vice-President Academic & Provost (VPAC) is developing a new process for summer 2022 for faculty wishing to change their course’s delivery method in the future.
As calculated by the Martlet at the time of writing, 13 per cent of courses will remain online for September and four per cent for January. For many, the return to campus is a welcome one. A UVic survey of students and instructors found that online courses left many overworked and overwhelmed. The stressful and sudden shift to an unknown education medium has many excited to say goodbye to Zoom and Brightspace for good.
Before we send online learning packing, however, education researchers emphasize that the pandemic forced a hasty implementation upon institutions and is not a good yardstick with which to measure digital classrooms as a whole.
Many education researchers are using the term “emergency remote teaching” to distinguish what instructors and students have experienced in the last 18 months from what online learning can be.
Janni Aragon is a UVic instructor who was director of the Technology and Society program and directed Technology Integrated Learning for five years. Throughout the pandemic, she worked with many instructors.
“It seemed like things were done without any consultation. And of course, we were in emergency mode,” said Aragon. “Usually there’s a pilot with some colleagues and then it’s rolled out. In a global pandemic, you don’t have time to do that.”
Aragon was familiar with online learning before the pandemic and, therefore, was able to adapt her course quickly. However, many instructors did not share her experience.
“I think some of my colleagues might have been humbled by this opportunity to teach online,” she said.
An article in the EDUCAUSE Review states that most professors take two to three terms to get comfortable teaching courses online. UVic professors would only just be reaching that point now, and that’s under normal circumstances, not during a global pandemic where they have many other new concerns.
Experts emphasize that online pedagogy requires new skills, ones that take time to learn.
“One can’t just take a face-to-face course and put it online,” said Valerie Irvine, assistant professor of education technology. “It has to be transformed.”
Transitioning to online learning hinged on support provided to instructors by UVic. During the pandemic, UVic hired four new learning experience designers along with three education technology specialists and three learning experience specialists specifically focused on accessibility. These positions will remain in place throughout the fall.
These staff have a deep understanding of pedagogy, educational technology, and user experience and help instructors develop courses that will best serve students. According to Irvine, learning experience designers played a pivotal role in course design.
Despite this investment, many instructors were not aware of all the supports available to them. In the report that UVic Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation (LTSI) published about their COVID-19 survey they stated “many of the resources requested by students and instructors in the survey responses already exist.” The report acknowledges that, moving forward, these supports will need to be better communicated and promoted.
It isn’t just instructors that were in over their heads though, many students struggled to navigate online courses. Looking ahead, Irvine thinks we need to be preparing post-secondary learners for the digital classroom long before they reach university.
“I think we haven’t done very well as a province is prepare our learners to be digitally literate,” said Irvine. “Our K-12 curriculum is lacking in this regard, we need to have more coursework at that level, and more options, for developing digital literacy.”
The future of online learning at Uvic
Despite the many improvements to be made, online learning has its advocates at UVic. For some, the flexibility and accessibility provided by digital classrooms were long-awaited. For people with disabilities, the physical classroom can pose immense barriers.
The Society for Students with a Disability (SSD) has launched the #Access4All Campaign this summer to express concern over a predominantly face-to-face semester.
“Seeing the transition with COVID to online schooling and how easy it is to accommodate many students with disabilities and the fact that we’re not doing it, I think, is incredibly suboptimal,” said Jonathan Granirer, SSD’s interim treasurer, in an Instagram live interview with the Martlet.
The #Access4All Campaign promotes a HyFlex method of teaching. Not to be confused with hybrid, where students choose how they enrol in the course, either in person or online. The HyFlex model would allow students to choose on a day by day basis how they want to access the course.
Advocates and experts say online classes aren’t just welcomed by those with disabilities, but also international students who can’t make it into the country because of travel restrictions, students in communities that lack post-secondary institutions, and those managing other commitments be it family or work.
“Gone are the days of our students being 18 to 22 and five per cent of them work part-time. That just doesn’t exist anymore. Students have full, rich, and at times problematic lives,” said Aragon, who hopes she continues to see technology used in classrooms. “Offering courses that are online meet our students’ needs.”
UVic is currently outfitting two classrooms (Harry Hickman 110 and Clearihue A127) with hybrid technologies to allow multi-access courses, where students can simultaneously attend class online and in-person.
Incorporating technology for accessibility can be even simpler, like providing access to recorded lectures. UVic has invested in Echo360, which will replace Kaltura as the campus audio-visual recording software. Additionally, a $500 000 project saw 114 classrooms outfitted with webcams to allow easy recording of lectures and projector presentations.
According to LTSI, “instructors may choose to use this technology to address the needs of students who are absent for short periods. It will not replace in-person attendance.”
Of course, providing the resources does not guarantee they will be used. Use of Echo360 is at the discretion of instructors, and concerns with intellectual property and decreased attendance still make many faculty hesitant.
“What we saw with a pandemic is that one modality isn’t good for everyone,” said Aragon, who plans to record all of her lectures. “So I will be using technology in different ways to ensure that I am helping all my students and their different learning needs. And frankly, if students are absent, or they just need a mental wellness block, … they’ll know that the audio recording is there.”
COVID-19 showed us how quickly we can adapt when forced to but it also highlighted many hurdles that exist in building successful online courses. This fall, with decreased COVID-19 transmission and time to plan, the university is moving away from emergency remote teaching. Advocates and experts hope it will provide an opportunity to move towards a more thoughtfully integrated technical classroom.