Like universities around the world, Memorial pivoted to online teaching on short notice, in response to COVID-19. This was an unprecedented experience for the entire campus community. At the end of the semester, we facilitated a number of discussion groups with the Biology and Geography departments, composed mainly of graduate students, with some undergraduates and faculty involvement). We discussed our various experiences with learning and teaching remotely/online, both before COVID-19, in classes that were deliberately designed as such, and under the Emergency Remote Teaching situation. Below is a collectively-written article on our reflections; we hope it might provide useful “food-for-thought” as many of us prepare to continue to teach and learn online.
The classroom goes virtual – experiences at Memorial University
Yolanda Wiersma1, Norm Catto2, Cole Deal1, Evan Edinger1,2, Rebecca Evans1, Emilie Geissinger1, Christopher Hearn1, Kong Sun Lim1, Nicole McCann1, Kelly MacDonald1, Adam Meyer1, Jacob Prosser1, Danielle Quinn, Isabella C. Richmond1, Matteo Rizzuto1, Julissa Roncal1, Makayla Swain1
1Department of Biology, Memorial University
2Department of Geography, Memorial University
On March 15, 2020, Memorial University announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all classes and labs would be suspended at the end of the day on Wednesday March 18 (which was later changed to Tuesday March 17) and that classroom instruction would be moving to remote instruction on Monday, March 23. This left instructors with 5 working days to figure out how to move their courses entirely online. Amongst faculty, threads of discussion emerged formally within department communications, and informally a more broad discussion took place in peer-to-peer discussions and posts on social media. The reaction from instructors to the need to move online fell along a continuum. On the one extreme, there was strong resistance to the idea. Reasons for this ranged, but could include fear of unknown technology, lack of previous experience, or philosophical opposition to online pedagogy. A blog post by an American academic on March 12 titled “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online” gained a fair bit of attention on social media. In it, Barret-Fox argued that the push to move rapidly online was not equivalent to developing online teaching which was intentionally developed as such. She suggested that students know less about technology than their instructors might think, might have limited internet access and did not sign up for an online course, all factors which would contribute to student stress in an already stressful time. On the other extreme, a group of faculty at Colorado College released a Zoom video discussion on March 20 in which they discussed with excitement of the novel opportunity of teaching online. They suggested that it would give faculty a chance to explore approaches to teaching that they might have been considering but now were forced to implement. As well, they pointed out that their students might be entering a workplace where remote teams and video conference meetings would be the norm, and so the move to remote learning was an exciting learning opportunity for them. This sense of opportunity was manifested at Cape Breton University, where a group of education students collaborated with their professor to produce an eBook on remote education; a collaborative project that built on prior classroom learning but which was pulled together remotely in about two weeks.
Articles quickly emerged in various media outlets. Proponents of digital learning generally suggested that online learning (when done well) offered an easier approach to differentiate instruction, let students work at their own pace, was advantageous for working students or student parents (when material was presented asynchronously), and that online learning was appealing to the digital generation. The move to emergency online learning was posed as a chance for faculty to explore the full potential of online/distance learning as well as a chance for universities (and K-12 education) to re-think their relationship to the public. Others cautioned that the current situation was not necessarily the best place to develop online learning as online vs. remote/distance learning and the abrupt shift to emergency remote learning were not functionally equivalent (see also Box 1). In all of these pieces, it was noticeable that the only voices in the discussion in the early days of the pandemic were academics and university administrators. No one was asking the students what they thought about all of this.
Thus, in MUN’s Biology Department, we used our remaining fortnightly “Eco-Evo” discussion group to have a conversation on this topic. We convened on a Zoom session. Participants were mostly graduate students, with a handful of faculty. A follow-up discussion with students in the lead authors’ 4th year class along with informal discussion with senior undergraduate Geography students were additional mechanisms to solicit ideas. The meeting notes were them summarized in a Google document, which all members of the community had access to and were invited to edit/contribute. These ideas are summarized below, and all contributors to either the online discussion or online collaboration on this article are listed (alphabetically) as co-authors here.; the lead author facilitated the process.
- Prior experience with online learning
Not surprisingly, faculty involved in the discussion had no experience as online learners. Some had done pencil-and-paper or cassette tape distance learning decades ago. Many of the graduate students, on the other hand, had experienced some online and/or distance learning in their undergraduate or graduate educations. Student experiences with remote/online learning were varied. They felt that when the professor had carefully designed the course, and when the online environment was well-organized, that the online learning experience was positive. However, when it was felt that the professor was just “dumping” the slides as normally presented in an in-person lecture, that the online experience was detrimental to learning and discouraged students from pursuing future online learning opportunities.. Text-based courses also posed difficulties when “dumped” online.
Students generally appreciated online courses where the lectures were shorter than in a typical classroom time block (~20 minutes seemed to be the consensus for a maximum length for an online lecture) and where there were features such as chat rooms and online discussion boards that let the students interact with each other and the professor. It was noted however, that these were more effective when actively “curated” by the professor. As well, assigning marks to participation in online discussions was felt not to be effective; students noted that most people put down a statement to get a mark, but there was little dialogue or discussion within the group.
Students had also experienced variation in whether online lectures were presented synchronously or asynchronously. Preference for which mode varied; students acknowledged that asynchronous was better for student parents or working students and an important part of an online course that aims to be equitable. They also felt that having some elements of the course presented synchronously created more of a sense of a learning community. Most students expressed preference for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous delivery, but preferred the synchronous components to be optional. Whether synchronous or asynchronous they appreciated when the professor attempted to humanize it by showing videos of themselves and by having an active presence online. Negative experiences with online learning were strongly related to slow response time of professors to emails/chat posts, slow grading, unclear deadlines and expectations, and long lectures or poorly designed courses. Some students felt they did not retain material as well when it was presented online/remotely, although the literature on this suggests that online presentation (particularly when presented asynchronously) provides more opportunity for review and makes for easier note take. However, this can be at the loss of spontaneous “teachable moments” that occur in a face-to-face classroom.
Everyone in the group had had nearly all of their courses carry an online component (such as a Brightspace shell); and there was universal agreement that careful design of how online and in-person components of a course were blended offered the best opportunities for learning. All of the professors in the group had used Brightspace to some extent; all but one were new to instructing completely online. One instructor found that class discussions via chat (especially when posts could be anonymous) were more active than discussions in an in-person context, but others observed that students only engaged in one-on-one conversations with the professor.
- Relative impacts of barriers to either online or in-person learning
A few in our group had experienced a “digital divide to learning” (low bandwidth, slow/old computers) and so were unable to engage in remote/online learning. However, some expressed that they would rather learn “in a classroom” (i.e., in a physical space) as it is harder to focus on learning from home when you are isolated at a computer. However, perhaps careful thought of how online courses are designed might mitigate this, as might students developing good “self-learning” habits as they increase the amount of online/distance learning. There was acknowledgement that physical campus spaces can also present barriers (e.g., financial, physical accessibility) and their ideal post-secondary institution was one that offered students as much choice and flexibility for where their learning took place as possible.
Interestingly, the perception in the media that online/remote learning is intuitively appealing to the digital generation was not an experience expressed by the students. Many of them said they struggled to stay motivated and on-task in online courses. A few consciously avoided online learning because they felt they were not technologically savvy, they disliked computers or found it was hard to stay motivated working online. Students said they like the structure of going to class, seeing the professor’s body language when they are lecturing and interacting with the prof and classmates. However, they pointed out that this may be truer for extroverted personalities, and that introverted students may be more comfortable chatting or asking questions online. Some students may have more experience with online settings and so more comfortable with the norms and practices of online interactions.
One instructor noted that the biggest challenges for lab courses were in having students complete labs entirely on-line, because they do not benefit from the interaction with peers and the instructor that accompany in-person labs, and because they could only see photos of specimens. On-line labs became individual assignments, and were less effective than in-class labs. The only feedback available to students came after, rather than during the lab, and important concepts were frequently missed. For two labs in one class, the prohibition on any field work precluded students from collecting basic field observations of their immediate surroundings or home towns; Google-Earth served as a somewhat reasonable substitute. An on-line lab exam, based on photographs of specimens, worked fairly well for most students, but several still misunderstood instructions. Substituting take-home exams (assignments) for invigilated exams left students open to the temptation of plagiarizing text. Similar to any essay-based science exam, the student answers reflected students’ general level of scholarly ability and experience, in items such as how to paraphrase, structure an essay or cite sources, as much as, or more than, their knowledge of the subject matter.
- Challenges and opportunities
Challenges expressed in terms of course design were finding an appropriate balance between synchronous and asynchronous elements; as each option had recognized advantages. Another challenge was the lack of peer interaction, or the difficulty that the online learning environment poses for peer interaction. Students pointed out that in a larger class, you figure out which peers are doing well and might be more likely to go to them for help before approaching a professor. Not knowing who the strong students are limits the availability for peer support. Perhaps in a distance-based environment, we need to harness new tools (e.g., messenger, Slack, Zoom) to foster more informal interactions.
Accountability may arise as a challenge within virtual environments. Success relies heavily on how well expectations translate into a positive learning experience. This may be accomplished by structured course maps from the professors–laying out a week’s worth of material and the format for how it will be delivered (synchronous, asynchronous, discussion boards, etc.), as well as addressing student expectations as to what they should be getting out of each lesson. This leaves both the facilitators and the students with the accountability that is required within the remote learning experience.
Some of the graduate students had had some experience teaching online, and their experiences echoed that of the professors who participated in the discussion; how to make the material interesting, accessible, and engaging, and how do you keep people engaged remotely. They felt it was difficult to get feedback on their teaching from the students, and so a challenge is to re-think how to solicit course feedback in a remote/online setting. One suggestion that was expressed was for professors to select a few students ahead of time and request they leave their video on as a “focus group” to look at, instead of teaching to a blank screen.
However, students also saw opportunities in the online world, which is the world many will face in their future workplaces. They felt like there currently isn’t a “standard” for what an online class looks like, so developing remote/online courses well is exciting, which echoes the sentiment in reference 3. They also felt like the emergency situation gave people an opportunity to delve into tools that they might otherwise have ignored but which in the future could translate back to the in-person world and make lectures in a hall more engaging and interactive.
Specific to biology, students wondered if virtual dissections would limit the number of animals destroyed for learning, and they felt that if done well, the learning would be just as good for first year students as under the current “cutting up lampreys” approach. They noted that certain types of learning, for example, coding, worked really well online. Echoing the sentiment in the Colorado College video that “a campus is more than just buildings” some students wondered if learning environments of the future really needed as much space as they have. Would we be able to have campuses with fewer buildings? Would it make sense for lecture halls to be replaced with conference rooms that would facilitate collaborative learning mediated through online experiences? Could online/remote learning expand the boundaries of the campus to increase global connections for our students?
Box 1. Definitions (source: Footnote #4)
Distance learning: students work from home; teacher assesses work digitally. Most often done asynchronously, though there may be synchronous sessions (e.g., lectures, office hours)
Online learning: students are in a classroom setting but complete parts of the course material (e.g., exercises, supplements to lectures) and/or assessments digitally.
Emergency remote learning: an abrupt switch of in-person instruction to an online format. NOT a substitute for experimentation on the efficacy of online learning.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Shawn Leroux for organizing EcoEvo sessions all semester and being open to an online Zoom discussion. Thanks to Dawn Bignell for pointing out an additional article of relevance and to Steve Carr for thoughtful comments.
 Cadloff, Emily Baron. The big transition begins as faculty switch to online learning in response to COVID-19. University Affairs, 23 March 2020.
 Jones, Steven, Covid-19 is our best chance to change universities for good. The Guardian, 31 March 2020.
 Sweeney, Niamh. When the Covid-19 crisis finally ends, school must never return to normal. The Guardian 7 April 2020.
 Hodges, Charles; Moore Stephanie; Lockee Barb; Trust, Torrey; Bond, Aaron. The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educase Review 27 March 2020.