Online learning forces professors to reconsider virtual teaching platforms

The past six months have brought unprecedented change to McGill as institutions worldwide transition to online learning platforms. Given the changes brought by online learning, teachers are being forced to develop new ways of delivering lectures, promoting discussion, and creating assessments.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut schools down in March 2020, and caused an abrupt shift from in-person classes to online learning. This transition to virtual platforms has persisted as McGill ramps up its Fall 2020 activities.

Associate Provost (Teaching & Academic Programs) Christopher Buddle explained McGill’s approach to adapting to an online format. A strategy that emphasizes support for each instructor’s particular approach to teaching.

“What [the McGill administration] decided to do was invest a lot of […] time, money, and resources over the summer to really [support] instructors on thinking about teaching remotely in a different way,” Buddle said. “[We wanted instructors to] understand from a pedagogical standpoint [that] an individual professor [can] take the tools available and create a rich and robust […] quality learning experience for students.”

Buddle noted the challenges with recreating a quality learning experience online, most notably with how instructors will administer assessments in a new online format. As closed-book, time-restricted, in-person assessments are no longer possible, the new online exams will have to take into account students’ different time zones and professors’ inability to supervise students writing exams. 

“I think actually, the biggest, most revolutionary changes we’ve seen as an institution is rethinking how we look at assessments,” Buddle said. “[The assessments are] much less about facts and much more about integrated thinking, synthetic thinking, and actually assessing in a way that gets to the heart of a class itself.”

Kanella Basilion, U2 Arts, found the online assessment formats to be better suited to her learning style, but experienced difficulties engaging with online lectures.

“Adapting to different circumstances is something that will always be helpful, but conversely with remote learning, there are less organic opportunities to build connections [with professors and peers],” Basilion said.

Once the country has moved past the pandemic, Buddle believes that McGill will return to the traditional model, where a proctor’s oversight is involved with assessments and examinations. Buddle views the changing nature of assessments, due to the loss of the traditional exam period, as a benefit. 

“I would like to see [this situation] as the end of a traditional final exam,” Buddle said. “We can’t just proceed in saying we’re going to continue certain parts of online [education] without also thinking about how we make sure access and equity are part of the conversation. That is why we’ve been pretty clear as an institution in talking about student support as being critical because it’s not a one-size-fits-all [solution].”

Professor Aziz Choudry of the Department of Integrated Studies in Education argues for a more nuanced perspective regarding the accessibility of remote education. 

Many McGill students have had real struggles to continue with their education and to survive, pay rent, eat, complete their program online, and deal with a whole range of crises […] exacerbated by travel [bans and] job losses,” Choudry wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “While there are fine educators and instructors who work hard to critically engage students, […] the university models itself more and more like a corporation. The quality of learning suffers through the managerial models that dominate university governance and runs McGill like a business, rather than a public university.”

The shift to a greater reliance on technology for education is leaving behind students who do not have access to high speed internet or personal computers that are essential for an online learning.

Professor Choudry commented on these potential setbacks, which could impact the skills of professors and students alike.“There are real concerns that [making] course delivery remote on [a] more permanent basis by automating instruction leads to the deskilling and displacing of professors,” Choudry wrote. The discussions, networks and social aspects of being on campus […] are really important spaces and places to learn skills—including student activism that has often held the university’s feet to the fire over important issues.”

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