Perspectives III: A Series of Articles on Teaching at Langara during the Pandemic

Early in 2020, students all over the world experienced a sudden, dramatic, and unprecedented shift in their academic world. Four months on, we have found ourselves finishing one semester remotely, delivering another fully online, and preparing for at least two more semesters teaching and learning in the virtual environment. In this series, Langara faculty share their experiences.

Our third contribution comes from Alena Buis, Department Chair in Art History and Religious Studies. Below, we share Dr. Buis’s article, “I don’t know how to teach online…yet”, a clever examination of the process of learning how to teach online effectively.

TCDC is providing a platform for instructors and instructional staff to share their reflections, opinions, and findings. If you want to contribute a piece to the perspectives series, please contact Jessica Kalra at jkalra@langara.ca.

I don’t know how to teach online… yet. What learning to teach online during a pandemic has taught me about resilience.

By Aleana Buis

On March 13th I did not know how to teach online but as it became increasingly apparent, I was going to have to learn. Since then I have learned the power of not yet.

In her groundbreaking work on the power of a growth mindset Carol Dweck emphasizes the importance of “yet” in successes inside and outside of the classroom. The Stanford psychologist has put forth two different basic beliefs we have about ourselves.

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities (Popova).

A fixed mindset says I can’t teach online. A growth mindset says I can’t teach online… yet.

So I had to figure out a way to be able to teach remotely. When I first started teaching and felt something wasn’t quite right I started taking classes in Vancouver Community College (VCC)’s Professional Instructor Diploma Program. To prepare for our new reality,  I went back to VCC’s School of Instructor Education and found a course of study for teaching online. I am now almost finished the program, with one course remaining.

Yes it has been hard. My partner and I have been juggling child-care and both working (more than) full-time. We have been forced to create new routines. He takes our children for drives so I can meet colleagues over Zoom. I make new curriculum maps during nap time. I work on assignments after they go to bed.  But these challenging times have also created more space for me to spend time with my daughters. For the past two months we have read more, played more, coloured more, sang more. I remembered what is important in my life. And ironically I have  never been more productive or reflective. Spending time with my four year old and two year old has reminded me that I want them to grow up to be resilient. Together we have embraced our seclusion and used it as a special time to learn new things. Tori worked on using the big girl potty and Evie practiced reading and writing letters. For little ones these are big, challenging tasks. And that’s why instead of saying “I can’t read” we say, “I can’t read, yet.” When they say something is hard, I remind them we can do hard things.

Our kids are new to using the potty and reading, just like I am new to teaching online. My own anxiety about teaching in a new distance format reminded me how scary it can be to learn something new. It reminded me how many of my students feel when they enter class. For many instructors we have been experts for so long, teaching the same way, we forget what it is like to be a novice. And just like I want to model resilience for my daughters, as educators we need to be modelling resilience for our students. These are truly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times. For years now higher education has been talking about preparing students for a world not yet created. Now more than ever we need to be transparent about what we are doing in pandemic times: we are “working effectively in groups to solve problems together; reading and interpreting complicated data, events, and texts; undertaking original research; and understanding and making sense of ambiguity (the gray areas).”

2020’s drastic pivot in teaching and learning gives us an opportunity to reimagine our teaching. For some it might be an opportunity to experiment with new technologies. For others changes in format can allow for changes in assessment using Universal Design for Learning.  For all of us we could think about supporting our students by using Open Educational Resources (OER). Most importantly however, Cathy Davidson reminds us of The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Course Online: “Adjust accordingly. We need to be human first, professor second.  We need to design as humans for humans in a global crisis.”

At some point post-secondary institutions might go back to business as usual. But I wonder what we can learn from these truly VUCA pandemic times. One mindset shift recommends replacing “I cannot wait for this to be over!” with “After this ends, what will I appreciate?”

So much of my learning from teaching online I am going to take back to my face to face delivery:

  • I am revising assignments to be more aligned with the learning objectives
  • I am ensuring that assessments are authentic and sustainable (versus disposable)
  • I am writing clearer instructions and more detailed rubrics
  • I am ensuring that content is accessible for all learners
  • I am working to build my intercultural competency
  • I am excited to see how I can build community virtually, and use technology to connect with students across time and space.

Like it or not many of us will be teaching differently in the next academic year. We need to stop focusing on why it won’t work and figuring out how we can make it work. For us and for our students.

As the most resilient person I know, my Dad (and maybe the US Marine Corps), always says: Improvise. Adapt. And overcome.

Reprinted with permission from the author. 
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