Well folks, it appears we have made it to end of 2020. WHEW!
We’re closing out the Fall semester with a roundtable conversation featuring Kim, Kelsey, and Amber Fatima Riaz. One of Kim’s former PhD students, Amber is a professional academic editor who works across scholarly genres, from conference papers and manuscripts to journal articles. She has also been a postsecondary instructor at a range of institutions, from universities to public and private colleges. During this past fateful March, she was working as an administrator at a private college in British Columbia.
In our chat, the three of us reflect on this strange year, and what we’ve learned about college and university teaching as a result of the pandemic. The short version of our reflections: systemic thinking and structural change required! For the longer version, read on …
KS: Amber, where were you teaching when COVID-19 first hit?
AFR: I was working as a campus education manager at a private college [with a largely adult student base]. What they did was try to utilize pre-existing curriculum and translate it for the new teaching medium (synchronous video conferencing). They kind of marketed it like, “We are going to continue teaching as if nothing has happened. You [the students] will just be at home, using technology to see and hear your instructor.” We were lucky in a way, because, right when the pandemic hit, we were on March break. So, we had a full week of training on the video conferencing platform and we were able to push the technology to instructors who did not have access to computers, webcams, headsets etc. We quickly took down the student computer lab, ordered new headsets and webcams, and set up our instructors for a teach-from-home setup.
What fell apart was accessibility for students. The assumption was that the students would have their own laptops or desktops. But our demographic is adult learners or people launching a second career, looking for jobs and careers as soon as they completed their certifications and diplomas with us. We were looking at parents with kids learning from home, you know, or people who had never touched a computer before, who suddenly had to learn all of this stuff about technology while also continuing with the courses, as if the pandemic hadn’t hit. At the administrative level, behind-the-scenes saw a lot of upheaval. A lot of the teaching time went towards providing tech support along the lines of “how to access emails” or “how to upload a document” —that sort of thing. During the monthly “Strategies for Student Success” course that I was teaching, my classes quickly switched to tech support and troubleshooting, because a lot of the students were trying to manage the online classes on a smartphone. They had to access exams, textbooks, quizzes, everything on just a smartphone. It created major problems for the students. Instructors meanwhile were facing issues of how to maintain academic integrity. I’m also seeing a lot of university students who started in the Fall having to make bigger investments in tech, which wasn’t necessarily something that they had budgeted for.
KB: Challenges with technology are something I’ve seen a lot of too. Just a couple of weeks ago, I did this really great activity that involved an online board game. It combined a lesson on representation in video games, with essay writing, and the board game itself. And it worked beautifully. Except that the toggling between different kinds of screen sharing — which required functional wifi and a decent computer — meant that it was technologically inaccessible for some students. And so it was frustrating because pedagogically it actually worked. But, it wasn’t as accessible as it could have been in terms of technology.
AFR: At the college level, I found that the tech—the use of computers to deliver curriculum with videos turned on—is what created issues of accessibility and also opened up new pedagogical challenges. While videoconferencing looks like an equalizer with students and teachers all in the same virtual space, it created a space where teachers defaulted to instructor-centered teaching models, because we lost the ability to foster peer-to-peer learning and help students engage in group work.
KS: I tried to mitigate the technical problems to some extent in the hybrid model that I developed for my class this semester. But what the hybrid model has revealed to me about virtual pedagogies has been really interesting.
I was teaching in an active learning space. So it’s got lots of pods and every pod has a projector, a smart white board, and a central computer that can do a bunch of things. So it’s ideal for distance learning as two students sit at a good space apart from each other at the same table, while others are on Zoom on big screens. I gave the students the option to come in live in person, or to be on Zoom, and to switch each week or stay in one or another mode, whatever suits. There are very sensitive microphones in the ceiling of the room and they can pick up ambient sound from anywhere so students don’t have to speak too loudly, which is great. But I’ve realized that because the camera is centrally positioned, it doesn’t really give a good view of anybody except me when I’m staring straight into it, and that’s only part of the time, when I remember to! The camera also has the weird effect for the students on Zoom of recentering me as the person in charge — even though the whole setup of the room is designed to decenter me, to create the spatial reality of a flipped classroom.
This made me think of how funny it is that the most de-centered, the most student-oriented, pedagogical methods are actually the most complicated to render virtually. It requires a huge amount of instructor dexterity. It requires TA Support. It requires tech support we’re not being given. So, virtual and hybrid models have actually reinforced the “sage on the stage” teaching methods of old that we all agree have limited use.
AFR: It’s almost the default setting! At our institution, I tried to decenter the teacher by encouraging the instructors to predetermine breakout groups ahead of time, then make room during the class for each group to exchange contact information—be it Facetime, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, whatever the group wanted. Then, the groups got to decide how they wanted to communicate. That helped remove the instructor from the group activity entirely. It allowed the instructor to simply monitor the fact that the groups were happening. And it allowed the students to meet on their own time. It worked beautifully because the groups got to decide how and when they were going to meet. The setup helped address the issue of accessibility, and decentered the instructor, but the onus was on setting up the activity properly in advance. Parents of young kids could look at the chat at 9:00 pm, that kind of thing, and the students reacted favourably to the setup, and to the freedom they were afforded.
KB: That’s fascinating. I tried to do that a bit too but got a different result. For example, I shortened class time with the explicit purpose that students could complete “homework” during that time but not be stuck on the Zoom while they do it. But, in the midterm feedback, students overwhelmingly reported being overwhelmed by the flexibility. Not just in my class, but across classes. So, I had to switch away from it. And something the students didn’t report but I think is implied is that they don’t quite have the time management skills yet for more flexible learning structures.
KS: I’ve also had the same feedback, Kelsey. Students are getting lots and lots of extra work, or what they perceive to be extra work. I’ve tried to remind them: the thing is that it’s actually not extra. It’s just that you’re having to do more than you would if you were sitting in a class lecture half-listening. You’re having to be more active in preparing for class, and you have to take more responsibility for your own learning.
I don’t think there’s enough of a meta-conversation happening around that. It also reminds me that what we really need to do at university is to invite students to learn time management in a class about time management. We actually have one of those courses at Western (a class that reflects in a meta-critical way on the history and culture of university), which is very cool. But, it’s an elective. I wonder what it would mean to reconfigure first-year university around classes just like that? So students could be doing classes about learning styles and learning practices. Doing classes about time management, doing classes about accessing and utilizing resources, alongside other things, of course. But doing courses for credit that require you to actually actively investigate the reasons that you’re there, what you do and don’t know about taking care of yourself as a learner and a citizen.
In my classes I always try to create robust scaffolds so students don’t have to just encounter the meta stuff and then deal with it, but they can actually learn through it. I think that would be incredibly powerful if it could be facilitated more broadly in the early years of university.
KB: I think one of the things implicit in all of the arguments regarding teaching in COVID-19 is that 18 to 25-year old students often don’t attend university for the education. Or at least not the education alone. They attend for the social aspect. They attend to experience the transition to being an adult. They attend to get a piece of paper they believe they need to get work in the future, have an adult life. So it makes sense that university gets incredibly hard when several of the reasons students are actually there get taken away.
AFR: We also need to be thinking about the demographies here. Because, if you look at the private college sector – where students are often immigrants, or people who are already in the workforce, or parents – it’s totally different. For these students, a useful education matters. They want their money’s worth. The classroom structure and course delivery structures are different. They’ll put in the time and effort, but only if it means they’ll get a good job at the end.
KB: So perhaps this is about openly acknowledging the different needs of a range students. It’s saying that learning information is one of the things that’s happening at university. But it’s not the only thing.
KS: I often tell my students, the truth is, I remember very little of what I actually learned in my bachelor’s degree. I remember formative learning moments that were facilitated by excellent teachers using excellent tools. I remember all of the parallel learning experiences. I remember the honors English lounge on the third floor of the Humanities building at the University of Alberta. I remember the grounds. I remember being with friends. I remember discovering myself, but I don’t actually remember the core stuff.
AFR: And that’s so key. I think what I’ve admired a lot about the elementary and high school teachers right now with the pivot that they have had to do is that they understood that the contents of what they’re teaching right now doesn’t matter, right? None of them are focusing on the overall content, or the guidelines that say they have to complete X, Y, and Z by the end of the month. Each teacher is focusing on life skills, study skills, resilience, building up grit. This is going to be the “lost year.” At the university and college level, though, the focus seems to be so much more on the content, that we’re losing the larger connections and relationships.
KS: I think that speaks to the bigger meta of our conversation, which is that so many of the gatekeeping mechanisms at universities are driven by assumptions that we’re learning now are not true. Students don’t come to university just to learn stuff. Most students are actually not that tech savvy. They don’t have gadgets with all the bells and whistles. They don’t have the default study skills you might expect if you’re invested in the notion that your university only accepts the best minds, whatever that means. In fact, students are mostly young adults trying to figure themselves out. And for them, the experience of university is an embodied liminal journey from childhood to adulthood. And if that’s the case, we need to invest so much more time and energy into supporting tech access, creating a wide range of different learning experiences, and operating as a default with compassion, rather than worrying about just porting content online.
Amber Riaz Bio: Amber Riaz is a professional academic editor, and has edited academic manuscripts, journal articles and conference papers, working with academic presses as well as individual authors. Since earning her doctorate in English Literature, she has worked as a sessional instructor at both public universities and colleges in London, Ontario, and public colleges and private colleges in Vancouver, BC. Most recently, she worked as the Campus Education Manager at Sprott Shaw College’s Surrey campus in British Columbia, Canada, before being laid-off due to COVID-19 in Sept 2020. She has taught Academic Writing, Literature, and General Education courses, in addition to offering student support services and administrative and pedagogical support to the instructors teaching various courses at Sprott Shaw. She has presented conference papers on the representation of mothers in film, interstitiality in contemporary South Asian literature and on stereotypes of Muslims in various film industries. She has also published essays on the Partition of India, on the representation of the “burqa” in Pakistani novels, and on the mohajir identity in Pakistani novels. Her research interests include Postcolonial studies, Feminist literary theory and South Asian Studies, as well as the intersections of diaspora, religion, and migration in South Asian Literature in English.
To find out more about Amber, see: