Post Written By: Dr. Catherine Vanner, Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations, Faculty of Education, University of Windsor
Heading into Fall 2021, I had begun a new position at the University of Windsor and was teaching large classes and online for the first time. As I navigate the first few months, I have been fortunate to be supported in this journey by my participation in the Humanizing Online Learning program, which connects instructors from seven Ontario colleges and universities, all seeking to make their virtual learning environment a more human space. For two months, we engage in weekly zoom meetings that mostly involve unstructured small group discussions on topics including unlearning and unsettling, students as agents of diverse destiny, co-creating inclusive communities, and sustaining change. The conversations in these groups have been profound. The following captures my reflections on one area of learning that I was able to pin down; many others, more elusive, continue to swirl in my head.
My course, Philosophical Orientations of Education, is required for all teacher candidates in the Bachelor of Education program. In it, we dig into big ideas underpinning education, organized into themes all responding to the question, “What is the purpose of education?” Many philosophers we address in the course, such as Paulo Freire, Nel Noddings, John Dewey, and bell hooks, were pivotal in shaping my own teaching philosophy. Thus, I tried to embrace the challenge of teaching online for the first time to 370 students with a determined if naïve feminist pedagogy centered around student voice, community, and care.
Synchronous participation in the class was important for me, as I wanted to invite student perspectives in dialogue and I could not envision an asynchronous approach to the class that would achieve that as effectively (perhaps a reflection of my own limitations). I recorded the classes to make them accessible to students who had to miss class for extenuating circumstances but I resisted making the recordings publicly available because I a) worried they would not attend class in real time as a result, and b) was concerned about the privacy issues surrounding encouraging students to share and be vulnerable and then making a recording of that expression widely available.
So, I started off making the recordings available upon request and to students with accommodations. I did see student engagement, dialogue, and community start to unfold. Students turned on their mic to share an experience or respond to another student and the live group chat would take off. “You’re on fire!!!! 🔥🔥🔥” is a refrain that I see regularly pop up in response to another student’s comment and it makes my heart sing, particularly when directed toward a student joining the discussion for the first time. The conversations have also been so fun. One student with their camera on mentioned their age while sharing an experience, and again the chat blew up: “You’re how old?? You look amazing! What is your skincare regimen??”
At the same time, I marked assignments and responded to emails, seeing so many unfamiliar names, and the size of the class began to set in. While I was starting to feel a strong sense of connection, energy, and community developing, it was representing a small fraction of the students, leaving me to wonder about the many others. Midway through the course, I provided my students the opportunity to give feedback on course delivery via a short open-ended and anonymous Stop/Start/Continue survey. One request prominently emerged: “Make the recordings accessible. You talk fast. These concepts are hard to understand. I like to rewind and replay the lecture parts so I can better get the ideas. One student even promised me, ‘I will still come to class.’”
Part of me reacted defensively, thinking about the lost art of notetaking. How when I was a student, we didn’t have the option of getting the recording, we had to make real-time decisions about what information was important to just listen to and what had to be written down. Also, we did our calculations by hand, read physical books, and walked to school in the snow… uphill both ways… I had to check my reaction. My students have never met each other. Even the students I feel most connected with, I probably would not recognize if I passed them on the street. A student reached out because she was at the ER with her son and missed a class where students had to present drafts of their assignments to each other for peer feedback. I suggested she ask a classmate for individual feedback instead but she said she did not have a single friend in the program she could ask. When they are missing so much by learning in an entirely virtual space, maybe I could make it a little bit easier by providing access to the recordings, which would not have been possible in a purely face-to-face classroom. Yes, some of them may not attend during class time as a result, but were these students actively engaging in the discussions and reflections at any rate? Perhaps not.
I still struggled, however, with the privacy issue. As a person who regularly lies in bed at night agonizing over how I said ‘the wrong thing’ in a meeting, I knew it would heighten anxiety around sharing to enable hundreds of my peers to rewind and replay these comments at their leisure. I brought the challenge to my actual peers in the Humanizing Online Learning program, high-jacking the breakout group to discuss my dilemma. As I listened to their reflections and the thoughtful emphasis on providing students whatever tools could help them learn the material, I realized there could be a middle ground approach.
I reorganized my classes so that, instead of interspersing dialogue and student perspectives throughout discussion of the material, I would have a more formal lecture at the outset, which I would record and post on the course LMS, followed by unrecorded activities to engage and dialogue with students as they unpacked and applied the material. This has been going well; as we head into the final weeks of the semester, there is more anxiety and less 🔥, but I still feel a sense of meaningful engagement, community, and reflection. I am also more confident knowing students now have the ability to rewind and replay the lecture portion of the class that they so desired, respecting their opinion that this is pivotal for understanding the big ideas and for making sense of me, even when I’m talking too fast.