It was 10 pm on March 15, 2020. I do not often check my email that late at night but because of COVID-19 and as an educator, I was expecting that anything could happen at any moment. As soon as I opened my computer, I noticed a message from my college. It read: “classes are cancelled, the campus remains open and faculty are to be on campus per their regular schedules.” It was not the news that I wanted to read as I was already a little concerned about the spread of the virus across the world and Canada in particular. I shut down my laptop and went straight to bed as I had to be in the college by my class time at 8 am.
As I entered the college it looked calm and felt cold. The warmth that I always felt was not there. Everything felt odd. To banish the strangeness that surrounded me, I headed to my department to find my colleagues. Every one of us had questions and concerns. We talked a little about how best to address our learners’ needs, how online teaching was going to be, and how tech-savvy we were. We gave each other moral support that we all needed with an assurance that our college leadership would be there to assist in case we ran into problems. I must say that I was soon overwhelmed by the communication and swift support provided to faculty.
Remote learning and teaching are not ideal for me. I had never been an online student. I was caught off guard like the rest of society. For a while, I thought I was not prepared to embark on teaching an online class, but the situation demanded that I start adjusting to the new, frightening reality and mode of teaching. I was a little afraid and nervous because I did not have any online teaching under my belt, and I did not know what to expect or how difficult it would be and if I would be able to connect with my students as I did normally. Connection is key to student engagement. This method in which students interact with the instructor and each other online is different than in a face-to-face setting. I was afraid that the online environment would limit that critical connection between instructor and student and students with their peers.
It was challenging and tricky to determine which virtual learning option would be the best match for me and my students. Among the available social networks, I chose Zoom because I was already acquainted with it. I sent the students all the instructions about the Zoom app along with the time and date for our first online class. I was aware of the fact that teaching online required me to be more vigilant about course organization, and about making sure content was clear so the students would not feel overwhelmed. They were already terrified by the pandemic!
What helped me most during this abrupt transition from in-classroom to online was my teaching philosophy and confidence in my adjusting abilities. As an educator, I do not rely on lecturing. I think lecturing easily turns active learning into passive learning. I see students as knowledgeable and intelligent and that they need only guidance and encouragement to increase their ability to understand and expand their existing knowledge. In this case, I needed to have engaging activities so students could easily participate, observe, and improve their skills acquisition.
So to start my first-ever online class, the trick for me was to provoke dialogue. I began as usual with greeting my students. I said that I missed interacting with them in person; however, I was excited to see and teach them albeit in a different way. This opened a window for my students to feel comfortable enough to share their personal lives, especially about the COVID 19 pandemic that has affected all of us. It was sweet when students wanted to see me in my room as I was teaching. I showed them my room; they let me have a glimpse of their rooms. This was the moment when I felt that I had not lost the trust and connection and that I still shared the same rapport as I did with them in a face-to-face class.
Now, this was a different, new, unexpected reality; therefore, I kept in mind that it was not only me who was new to online schooling—many of my students might also be new to the platform and learning environment. I was honest with my students and let myself be open to them that, “I am a learner and instructor both. The benefit of being a learner is that I am open to what you have to say, I also learn from you all, so let me know if you find it difficult to comprehend. I will be creating new ways for more positive and rewarding experiences.”
Online teaching is distinct from a face-to-face class, but the two are not significantly different in terms of the content being taught. I made sure to send regular notes and announcements keeping students up to date, sending summaries of the PowerPoint slides, providing guidance for the week ahead, and posting chapters of the book to help orient them. The unique semester was coming to an end and the students had to complete their final project—a group presentation. I let them know that I would like their final projects to be delivered as they would have delivered them in the classroom. I encouraged them to utilize social media channels and to figure out the platform that worked best for virtual discussion groups so they could work collaboratively. In this activity students with different skills and knowledge are expected to cooperate. Group work is always challenging, it requires flexibility, openness, and understanding. I knew that it was going to be more challenging given our new reality and that is exactly what happened. Students on a daily basis sent me email regarding group work. Some wanted to drop the course because it was not easy for them to navigate through online learning. A few others did not have a personal laptop to work on the project. I could not suggest that they visit the academic support centre and library because everything was shut down.
That was the most difficult time when I went the extra mile to help them succeed. I extended the due dates. I sent supporting and motivational emails to the students who wanted to drop the course. I arranged meetings via phone with a student who was concerned about failing the course. These were the strategies that helped me and my students go through an uncertain time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Huma Nasery B.A, M.A, M.Ed is an instructor at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Durham College in Oshawa.
This article appears in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2020 issue.