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Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning works with faculty to prepare next-generation online courses

After a frantic rush to get classes online in mid-March, the university is prioritizing interactive and engaging offerings for a strong student experience
June 15, 2020
By Kelsey Rolfe

Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) had to jump into action in mid-March to help faculty when they were suddenly asked to bring their courses online due to the campus closures.

The centre rose to the challenge, and its specialists’ rapid response, hard work and expertise made it possible for professors to adapt their courses from in-person to online delivery in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Robert Cassidy, the CTL’s director, lauds the massive collaboration that went on behind the scenes to support faculty and allow students to finish their courses on time.

“We were working around the clock, having hourly meetings and conversations with Instructional and Information Technology Services. Library staff very quickly reached out and offered to help,” he recalls. “People rolled up their sleeves and delivered on rapidly getting those courses functional for finishing online, and that work really paid off.”

Now, going into the fall term, the CTL is helping professors design their courses with online delivery in mind and create a meaningful, dynamic learning experience for students.

“It’s an important distinction that the winter courses were not really online courses or designed as online learning experiences,” Cassidy emphasizes. “Given we know classes are going to be all or mostly online in the fall, we’re building them intentionally to make them really good courses and agile enough to deal with the uncertainty of how much will need to be online.”

Robert Cassidy: “Library staff very quickly reached out and offered to help.” Robert Cassidy: “Library staff very quickly reached out and offered to help.”

‘Zero-waste course prep’

It’s currently unclear how much in-person learning will be possible, though the university is planning for some limited labs and studios to be held on campus. The CTL is guiding faculty in developing their courses so they can be easily adapted to the realities of the situation. They also want to make the most of the face-to-face time professors have with their students — whether that’s in a classroom or a Zoom room.

“We’re working really hard to build in as much flexibility as we can,” says Sandra Gabriele, vice-provost of innovation in teaching and learning and an associate professor of communication studies in the Faculty of Arts and Science. “We want to capture the differences that happen across courses and the creativity our faculty members show, but we want to as much as possible help our faculty understand the best practices for online courses.”

Existing research on teaching and learning has demonstrated that the most effective courses use a blend of asynchronous components — the work that students do on their own time, such as course readings — and synchronous components, or the time that teachers and students spend together.

Planning for an online experience means rethinking the way faculty have traditionally delivered their courses.

The CTL is encouraging professors to record their lectures rather than delivering them live via web or video conferences, which will allow students to watch on their own time and rewind to catch points they missed or weren’t sure about.

As for the class time that frees up? “A good way to use that is to get students wrestling with the information they’ve previously taken in, doing problem sets and group discussions over particular concepts,” Cassidy says.

“As that flushes out, you’ll hear, ‘I don’t understand this, I thought it was this,’ and the professor is in the room with them to guide that discussion, hear these comments and make learning moments out of them.”

Cassidy says that change will be positive for students in the long run, and it will lead to better teaching regardless of the forum.

“It’s what I call zero-waste course prep,” he says. “It’s very flexible, you won’t throw it away when things change and it leads to better course design overall.”

Sandra Gabriele: “We’re working really hard to build in as much flexibility as we can.” Sandra Gabriele: “We’re working really hard to build in as much flexibility as we can.”

Learning from experience

Even courses that have always had a strong in-person component will find that there’s value in online learning, Cassidy adds. Arts and professional programs offer a hint.

Take the Department of Theatre, for example. “Artists right now are not performing in public venues — they’ve started innovating with and in online venues. Artists are really innovating radically — crowdsourcing performances, stitching them together, doing live-reads on Zoom,” he says. “So why not teach through this medium in a way that will make students resilient?”

As another example, Concordia’s Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, can help its students prepare for a world where virtual kinesiology and athletic therapy appointments are booming.

“Athletic therapists may not be able to touch the client’s knee, but they can ask the questions and guide them through the assessment and rehabilitation exercises,” Cassidy says.

Similarly, kinesiologists can intervene virtually. It does not replace in-person health care but it is a great adjunct in all kinds of situations. “It’s a weird shift that’s taking place, but it’s not artificial,” he notes.

“Society is shifting, professions are shifting and they’re probably not going to go all the way back to what it was. This moment is going to leave remnants, and there is a very valid and authentic learning experience in this, even though it’s hard to work through that innovation.”

Embracing the technology

Robert Hopp, senior lecturer and undergraduate advisor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences, welcomed the CTL’s ideas when adapting his summer course on leadership and leisure services. It is typically a very hands-on course that culminates in a retreat at the end of the term.

“That’s impossible to deliver online, but we took as many of the elements as we could from a non-traditional class and moved to Zoom. I was pleasantly surprised with the result,” he says.

Hopp and his fellow lecturers pre-recorded small lectures and put them online for students to watch on their own time. They then used in-class sessions online for pen-and-paper exercises and breakout Zoom rooms for discussions.

“Students embraced the technology. They were doing the breakout rooms, they understood Zoom and screen-sharing and the interactive elements that we were initially worried about we pulled off well,” he says. “CTL had a huge role in our success.”

Eva Lagou, director of the Graduate Diploma in Chartered Professional Accountancy, says the CTL was able to help her prepare for the summer session, which is the busiest time for the program with three streams running in parallel. One crucial part of moving online was finding a way to deliver exams. Her department is using the university’s Concordia OnLine Exams platform.

“We’re taking it one step at a time, and we’re also looking at other solutions that they’re trying to develop for us,” Lagou says. “We’re helping the CTL design for the fall at the same time as we’re using the different tool sets they have and trying to see what the right combination is for the program.”

Developing engaging, interactive online courses is hard work, so the CTL has developed a support system for online course design that will give faculty tools to figure out how they want to structure their classes, Gabriele says.

The kit includes examples with explanations of why they’re effective and how professors can adapt them to their own courses. It also includes a self-assessment tool to help faculty determine how comfortable they are using various online tools and what they might need support or training with.

“Ultimately, every discipline has particular ways of teaching, and our goal is to give them best practices and help them find a way to reflect those in how they design their courses,” Gabriele adds.

The CTL is also making checklists available that assist faculty members determine how much time they’ll need for certain elements of bringing their courses online — such as making sure the copyright for their course materials is dealt with so they can post them.

Find out more about
Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, including their support system for faculty seeking to adapt their courses for online delivery this fall.




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