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Teaching and Learning Remotely: A Year in Review

As we mark one-year since universities transitioned to remote teaching and learning, some would argue that all groups involved – instructors, students, administrators – are still trying to flatten the learning curve. Having held various TA and lecturer positions over the last 12 months, here are some of my reflections on remote teaching and learning. 

Partitioning content. My excitement about leading a seminar-style course in Fall 2020 quickly turned to panic when confronted with the very nature of the course: how could I effectively foster student engagement and communication on Zoom? Building on student feedback and suggestions from colleagues, I chose to develop a hybrid model of teaching with asynchronous and synchronous content. Wiping the sweat beads from my forehead, I pursued an exercise of partitioning course content into material that could be delivered asynchronously and synchronously. On the one hand, the asynchronous content consisted of weekly 30-40 minute recordings that covered the major themes and readings for the week. On the other, the synchronous content consisted of weekly live class meetings with exercises and prompts for discussion to emulate the spirit of a seminar. Students appreciated the complementarity between the recorded material that they could watch and re-watch on their own time, and the live discussions to clarify and reinforce concepts. Heeding the benefits of partitioning course content, I also created recordings of assignment instructions with accompanying slides. This allowed for more focused Q&A sessions on assignments during the live class meetings. 

Connecting with the world. Guest lecturers are a wonderful addition to the class environment. The fact that the world was online, allowed me to pick and choose from my guest lecturer wish list. Regardless of the city where the student, instructor, or guest lecturer was based, all could connect for a tailored, expert-led discussion online. In addition, students could learn about other institutions and departments, which I found was useful for upper year undergraduate students and Master’s students interested in further training/studies.

The nuts and bolts of commonly used tools. Learning about technology tools for remote teaching can be challenging and time consuming, so the idea of learning many from scratch overwhelmed me. I also wanted to avoid overwhelming students, who potentially had 2-3 technology tools to learn per course with a 4-5 course load. I chose to limit the number of technology tools I would use and ensured that they were relatively known to students – myCourses – the institutional course software, Zoom, and the Microsoft Office suite. By keeping it simple and learning about the nuts and bolts of these tools through trial and error and attending workshops, I realized the power of commonly used tools to support remote teaching. Interactive document activities in Microsoft Word, polls and breakout groups embedded in Zoom, simple screenshares, PowerPoint cursor functionalities, and media sharing (podcasts, videos on YouTube) all became standard learning tools in my live sessions. 

Checking-in with students. As I became more acquainted with my students, some shared feelings of isolation from their peers and academic programs as spontaneous meetings and in-person discussions were no longer possible. Students were also exhausted. There was screen exhaustion from having nearly all facets of their lives – studies, work, socialization – on virtual platforms. In addition, since exams were now a logistical challenge, many instructors incorporated “no stakes” or “low stakes” assignments. Students shared that they had numerous classes using this learning strategy to substitute exams, which accumulated the workload each week and took much more time than anticipated. Though I am a strong proponent of this learning strategy as it maintains regular engagement with the class material, in the remote setting a balance must be struck. For instructors, being creative in the types of assignments and reasonable in the workload was increasingly important. 

With a little help from my friends. Workshops about remote teaching and learning over the last year have been invaluable resources to support remote pedagogy, to learn about learning activities, and to understand the online setting as a medium for teaching and learning more broadly. My highlights include weekly informal drop-ins with TLS, trainings on Zoom functionalities, and workshops on how to ensure equitable learning online. By extension, I had insightful exchanges with colleagues, administrators, and students about their own ideas and experiences. Why reinvent the wheel? After all, we are all striving for effective course delivery and student success.

Expect and respect modifications. To reduce student isolation, I started holding breakout groups at the beginning of each synchronous meeting so that students could connect with 3-4 peers for 5 minutes about unrelated course material. This strategy also contributed to the development of a class community. To reduce student exhaustion, I adjusted the assignment workload and expectations (such as reducing the number of weekly writing assignments originally expected) and incorporated study days to work on assignments (no class meeting or recording). I’ve learned that it is important to be open with students about changes that may occur over the course of a semester, especially during these times ladened with uncertainty. The best way to know how students are doing is simply to ask them. Polling students and using anonymous surveys, such as “stop-start-continue” activities and mid-course reviews, are terrific strategies to get a sense of how students are doing. 

Going forward. Having gone through iterations of remote teaching over the last 12 months and reflecting on our return to in-person teaching, I think our “normal” way of teaching would benefit from some of our experiences on virtual platforms. Some are for practical purposes. Maintaining some form of hybrid learning through recorded instructions of assignments and online office hours or tutorials, provides learning tools to students and reduces travel time to campus for quick questions. But the main reason why I would like some aspects of remote teaching to remain is that it encourages inclusive learning. I recognize that students are all unique learners – they absorb information and perform tasks in a myriad of different ways. This diversity in learning was apparent when shifting from in-person to remote teaching in March 2020. At that point in the semester, I had begun to know my students, their personalities, and strengths. I knew who was outspoken and who was more reserved. Student engagement flipped once online as the more reserved students increased their engagement through chat features and breakout groups on Zoom. Similar learning personalities and preferences emerged as I engaged with new groups of students over the year. In the remote setting with various learning tools at our disposal, we move away from the traditional instructor-to-student model of exchanges, thus diversifying the ways in which instructors can teach and students can learn. 

Emmanuelle Arpin is a Lecturer in McGill University’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health (EBOH).

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