The pandemic year has altered our lives and compelled us to reconstruct a “new normal” in unimaginable ways. College teachers were confronted with unpreceded challenges,  and navigating the world of technology and moving classes online was daunting. Engaging students and constructing meaningful and trusting relationships in online classrooms has challenged teachers to think outside the box. For many, cheating and plagiarism continue to be difficult to manage. Despite the obstacles faced, many teachers created online classrooms that were inclusive, equitable, and fair, and which met the diverse needs of our online learners. 

Engaging in extensive, self-directed professional development to augment my own teaching practice has offered me insights about effective strategies for teaching online.

As a Vanier teacher and the pedagogical counsellor responsible for the implementation of the Ministry’s Digital Action Plan, the pandemic has sent me on a deep dive into the world of online learning. Engaging in extensive, self-directed professional development to augment my own teaching practice has offered me insights about effective strategies for teaching online. Additionally, throughout the 2020-21 academic year, teachers from departments across Vanier College have shared their innovative teaching practices with me. I am currently working on a webpage that aims to showcase these practices, so that all teachers within our community may learn from one another. This article describes several of these strategies.

Structuring a fair and equitable online class 

There are many ways to structure online classrooms, including asynchronous, synchronous, and even blended formats. Some teachers have chosen to combine the asynchronous and synchronous formats to reach all of their learners. Edward Awad, a teacher from the Biology department, has embedded both asynchronous and synchronous teaching formats to deliver his courses. 

For the asynchronous portion, Edward has created learning resources that tap into the diverse cognitive strengths of his students. More specifically, he creates personalized videos about the concepts he has taught in each lesson, and he shares these on Moodle. This strategy offers students both a visual and an auditory component to learn from. By integrating interactive reading from online textbooks and personalized notes on the content, Edward is offering choice to students, so they may opt for the strategies from which they learn best. In addition, Edward encourages students to practice questions through quizzes that he has created. In this way, students can self-assess areas that are still unclear to them. This feedback loop empowers them to seek additional support as needed. 

During the synchronous class, students and teacher review the concepts taught, and Edward provides opportunities for students to ask questions and engage in group activities. Some activities are traditional pen and paper exercises, while others draw on the students’ creativity and include a tactile component, with students using available materials to construct models of organisms and other biological phenomena.   

By offering opportunities for students to learn through auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities, Edward has embraced the constructivist paradigm and chosen to ground his teaching in the Universal Design for Learning approach. In Edward’s class, all students are given varied, equitable opportunities to learn.

Authentic assessments 

To create authentic assessments that mitigate cheating and plagiarism, Psychology teacher Kevin Casey has used Moodle. He has developed a technique that offers each student a unique assessment with different questions. Because each student has a unique set of questions, cheating and plagiarism among students becomes almost impossible. 

To address cheating and plagiarism concerns in our Biology classes, Lissiene Neiva and I have opted to conduct collaborative assessments on Moodle or Microsoft Teams. Collaborative testing entails creating a complex and challenging case study that requires multiple students to work together to solve the case. Such an approach lessens anxiety on the students’ part, and it encourages them to engage in in-depth critical thinking and problem solving—key competencies for college-level students. Individual learning outcomes can be assessed by meeting one-on-one with the students, which we do during lab time. 

Individualized feedback on assessments

Prior to Covid, offering individualized feedback to each student was quite straightforward. Most teachers organized office hours for students to review and discuss their assessments in person. However, offering one-on-one feedback in an online environment has posed some challenges. In my own experience, individualized sessions have been interrupted due to poor internet connections. Frozen screens, echoes, and broken voices/choppy calls have been troublesome issues affecting one-on-one meetings with students. A question that many teachers have asked themselves in the context of online learning is How can we provide individualized feedback online in a more personalized and effective way? 

By integrating interactive reading from online textbooks and personalized notes on the content, Edward is offering choice to students, so they may opt for the strategies from which they learn best.

Alana Baskin, from the English department, has developed a unique way to offer feedback. Using Microsoft Stream, Alana records a video as she comments on each section of the individual papers. In the video, the student is able to view the commented version of their paper and listen to their teacher’s insights. In addition to being both visual and auditory, this strategy has several advantages. The student can access the videos when it is most convenient for them, without forcing them to meet at a particular time. This strategy is especially significant for students who have difficulties with their internet connection and are unable to converse with the teachers online. 

Lessons Learned and Future Plans

In these hard times, the conversations that I have had with my colleagues have given me a sense of comfort. I have felt supported, and despite the distances between us, I’ve felt that I am not alone. Into my own teaching, I have integrated several strategies that my colleagues have shared with me, including the creation of authentic and individualized tests as well as collaborative testing. It has been deeply enriching to learn from others and share my own attempts to make online learning enriching and effective for my students. 

Currently, we stand at a crossroads when it comes to planning for the Fall 2021 semester. Several questions remain unanswered: will we be 100% in-person or will we adopt a blended learning approach? While this uncertainty can cause stress and anxiety among our teachers, one thing is certain: we’ve got one another’s back and we can rely on one another’s knowledge, experience, and expertise to make next semester (and the one after that) a success.

For Fall 2021, if we are asked to be 100% in-person, I am ready to go back. However, if Plan B becomes our new reality, I am very excited to adopt a blended learning approach (i.e., the synchronous rotation model) such that I would like to teach part of my class online while part will be in-person using the Owl Meeting Pro. In PSI, we are working to support teachers in making the transition towards blended learning smoothly – if this approach is adopted. 

Whatever comes our way, I’m confident that we’ll adapt. Time and again since March 2021, Vanier teachers have shown that they can make it work.

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