Reflections on online teaching and learning

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TL; DR — This article includes reflections on lessons that I learned, first, from our abrupt move to emergency remote teaching online, and then through online certificates and courses that I took in the days/weeks that followed this transition to remote teaching. I present some key requirements (KR) to consider when planning to offer learning experiences online.

The article in all its glory

March 2020 was an interesting month. It seems like it was a lifetime ago! As I write this article in May, it has been a bit more than two months since the restrictions began as part of the COVID-19 directives issued by the Governments of Canada and the various provincial governments. Many aspects of all of our daily lives have changed in these past few months. So has the way we teach and learn.

The ides of March!

I must admit — though I had an idea of what to do so that I would not overwhelm my students as we switched to emergency remote teaching1 in mid-March (yep, the ides of March!), I was still terrified of how my teaching choices would be received and how they would impact my students. I chose to make the remainder of the two courses I was teaching into self-paced components. Students were not expected to attend synchronous lectures and their exams were replaced by assignments.

The decision was mainly driven by the fact that our campus facilities were closing and our students were being required to leave their on-campus accommodations, which meant that they would no longer have access to campus internet, computers, etc. When I made this decision, I was also very glad that I started recording my lecture presentations (well, screen-capture record them) a couple years ago. I could share these lecture videos with my students and be available through online office hours to support their learning.

When I did my Certificate in University Teaching and Learning (CUTL) at the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT), I had learned about the importance in the context of online teaching of donning the role of a facilitator of learning and being a mentor rather than a teacher. But the first challenge I felt when I made the decision to switch to an asynchronous2 mode of teaching was that I could not get a sense for whether students were (a) engaging with the content regularly, or (b) had any questions, or (c) were overwhelmed with all material and requirements being released at once rather than in phases. One of the things we rely on in in-person teaching and learning contexts is visual feedback, i.e. to be able to see whether learners have any questions while the content is being delivered. This was now missing. Also missing were the informal conversations before/after class when I could hear from learners if something wasn’t clear or needed a bit more explanation or if there was general concern about something.

It was also challenging to anticipate how many of my students were facing issues due to the various restrictions imposed on travel or due to self-isolation following travel, etc. We were in unchartered waters; there was no guideline on how to deal with this situation. There was panic all-around and I only hoped that I was making the correct decisions to support my students’ learning.

A bit of work to understand online teaching better

The switch to remote teaching and the uncertainty around future semesters also made me recognize the need to know online teaching and learning better. Much better. It was announced in March that the summer term would be fully online and the decision on the fall term was left pending, because there wasn’t much we knew about this virus (SARS-CoV2) at the time but we knew about its deadly impact on the lungs of people who were infected. (At the time of writing this article, we still do not have clarity about the fall term at Dalhousie University.)

It was time to better understand online learning and about facilitating online learning in the correct way. Along with some of my colleagues, I enrolled in an online certificate on Online Education offered by the Digital Society School. It was an incredible learning experience. The learning was self-paced and synchronous activities were optional. All deadlines were set to be a week after the last optional synchronous class of the course. I could not attend the first couple synchronous sessions but something about this nature of the course motivated me to attend these sessions.

Was it the fear of missing out? Possibly not, because these lecture videos were posted later.

Was it that I would miss the opportunity to ask questions in real-time and engage in a conversation with other learners? Perhaps.

Was there something else at play here to influence my behaviour? Perhaps.

The course was helpful to recap some of the lessons learned through CLT and to learn new lessons about working in a fully online and remote/distance education setting.

Around the time this certificate course concluded, one of my colleagues suggested the course on the Science of Well-Being offered by Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale University on Coursera. This is a fully self-paced course with fully asynchronous lecture videos and activities. I’m on week 4 of this course at the time of writing this article. Having just completed a mixed mode course in which I engaged with the synchronous sessions, I found myself disengaging from this course quickly. I’m glad I caught myself doing this in the first week and reflected on this behaviour, because there’s something about the freedom a fully asynchronous course offers that makes it easy for us to think “hmm, I’ll get to it tomorrow” and then either disengage temporarily or fully withdraw from it eventually.


My behaviour in these two courses has been fascinating to observe. I LOVE to reflect on things and I have spent quite a bit of time over the past little while reflecting on this behaviour. I have come to understand that the first thing we neglect when it comes to being productive at work and trying to be better at what we do is our well-being. I am not certain yet if this was at play when I disengaged for a bit with the fully self-paced course, because the topic was on well-being. But it did make me wonder about how my students would feel about a fully self-paced course offered alongside other courses that had synchronous activities.

I am aware of the technological challenges in many regions in Nova Scotia, within Canada and around the world that prevent students from being able to participate in synchronous sessions, which is why I had chosen to switch to an asynchronous mode for the rest of the winter term. But this has made me consider the following key requirements (KR) for an online course:

[ KR0 ] Be compassionate. Something that sounds obvious. When we look at a course as a set of things to be completed within a certain duration of time, it becomes merely procedural. Compassion and kindness, when directed towards yourself and towards your students, will ensure that you define (and communicate) clear boundaries, set clear expectations, remain flexible, focused on student learning and being a bit more accommodating. A culture of kindness is essential as a foundation to make learning more fun, while being mindful of your own well-being and the well-being of your students.

[ KR1 ] Plan for mostly asynchronous activities to support learning. E.g. create shorter length videos / audio clips with demonstrations and description of concepts, make lecture notes and other support material available (and accessible) asynchronously.

[ KR2 ] If the course is applied, try to schedule synchronous demonstration sessions that are optional to attend. Make the recording of the session available following such a session.

[ KR3 ] Provide learning activities in multiple modes, i.e. consider guidelines provided by universal design for learning (UDL). This will ensure that you facilitate learning through different ways to engage with the content, use different ways to represent the content, and allow for multiple ways to interact with and demonstrate their understanding of the content.

[ KR4 ] Plan exams to be open book. Exams are stressful and if you choose to have some form of a fully online summative final exam, you may choose to use tools such as the Respondus lockdown browser that you see being available for use with LMSs3 like Brightspace. Remember, technology does not always work the way you expect it to. And exams are not the only way to assess whether students can demonstrate the learning outcomes.

[ KR5 ] Trust your students. I know this sounds obvious. But small actions that we take, like requiring lockdown browsers for remote exams, etc. in a way demonstrates that we don’t trust our students to do what we expect them to do. Instead of planning such activities, give them the ability to practice and learn, and demonstrate those learning outcomes through different ways.

[ KR6 ] Technology can be a friend and a foe. Plan for technology fails and for students who may not have the same technology infrastructure that you expect. When we set expectations in a course, we are also placing implicit expectations that our students have certain technological infrastructure at their disposal. If they are on campus, they can make use of many of the features. But if they do not have the same access to the university campus, it is absolutely unreasonable to expect all learners to have access to the infrastructure that you expect. Our responsibility is to make the courses accessible to all learners. Please plan to allow for the possibility that something does not work the way you want them to or that someone may not have access to infrastructure.

[ KR7 ] Facilitate communication. Being online is different from being in an in-person course, and definitely requires you to don the role of a social director too (check out the five roles of an online instructor). You can use discussion boards, support multiple ways students could engage with the material and discuss among themselves, and support ways to reflect on content and submit such reflections. But this needs an active role on your part, to create opportunities for and to facilitate communication, in the same way you would in your in-person classes.

[ KR8 ] Be authentic. Being truly yourself and representing yourself in an authentic manner is very important. You have your own style and philosophy of teaching, which you can adapt to teach facilitate learning (online or otherwise). But you still need to make an effort to show up authentically, because it encourages your learners to be authentic as well. Instead of trying to conform to someone else’s idea of you being a teacher, be the most authentic version of yourself as a teacher you can be. This means that your focus moves away from pretence to the courageous act of being vulnerable and being fully present in the moment. This is empowering and healing, too.

In closing…
(OMG I didn’t realize this had become such a long article 😂)

What I have said here are thoughts based on reflection, based on personal experiences, and are largely plans for what I want to do in my online (or in-person) courses in the future.

It is likely that I may write a follow-up to this at some point in the future, as I update my courses, complete the course on the Science of Well-Being, and go through various other experiences in life.

I’ll leave you with this thought — what I’ve said here may not work for you in the way I’ve said it. Use it if you’d like or update it to be useful in your context. My intention is to trigger a thought in your mind, something that encourages you to think of a list for yourself, which hopefully I can get the opportunity to read (and learn from) at some point in the future. My intention is also to let you know that we are all in this together. We are working towards a new normal in the world in general and in academia, and I hope that this new normal is one that is grounded in authenticity, kindness and compassion.

May the Force be with you! :)

  1. Emergency remote teaching — this was the emergency decision by universities to abruptly shift to online teaching as direct result of restrictions imposed by the Governments of Canada and Nova Scotia to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There was one week’s notice to migrate courses online and there was not enough time to migrate them as per the best practices of online teaching because faculty and staff were required to start working from home while managing families and other commitments that were also impacted by widespread closures and cancellations of services. As a result, this abrupt migration of courses is referred to as emergency remote teaching and not online teaching. You can find many articles on emergency remote teaching through a quick Google search. One such article can be found here:
  2. Asynchronous mode of teaching — this mode of teaching makes all learning materials available to the students and keeps no activity to be completed by all learners (and teachers) synchronously, i.e. at the same time. Students are welcome to complete the learning activities in their own time, at their own pace, and interacting with other learners and teachers also at their own time/pace. You can find more information about asynchronous and synchronous modes of teaching on the website of The Open University:
  3. LMS — Learning management system that is used to manage courses. Examples include Moodle, Brightspace (by D2L), etc.

Reflections on online teaching and learning
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