The bimodal approach: More flexibility for our students

Posted on Tuesday, November 23, 2021

portrait of alain st amant standing in front of biosciences building

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Ottawa had no choice but to add another arrow to its quiver to ensure it could continue offering courses to its students. Following public health guidelines, the University introduced bimodal courses (also known as hybrid courses), which allow for both in-class and online teaching. 


The bimodal approach is a combination of two real-time (synchronous) teaching spaces: one physical space, that is, a classroom on campus with a professor and a reduced number of students, and a virtual space using a video platform (Zoom or MS Teams) for students who have chosen to learn remotely. 

“When public health restrictions were relaxed, it was understood that I would still be there for those who wanted to take the course online,” says Alain St-Amant, professor at the Faculty of Science. “Is the learning experience the same for both groups? No, not exactly. But the students are happy that they can choose.” 

For St-Amant, the key to his success in converting his course to a bimodal format was his ability to be flexible and stay true to his teaching style. 

“I am a traditional lecturer,” he explains. “So I continue to teach in the manner with which I am comfortable, yet I remain fully aware of the needs of both groups of students. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was suggested that I prerecord my lectures. But I love teaching live, so that’s what I do. And I record my sessions because I realize that some students may have connection problems or that they are connecting from another country. So adopting a bimodal format doesn’t mean you’re giving up your teaching method. It was important for me to remain true to who I am while recognizing my own limitations and those of the new format.” 


Implementing bimodal courses 


St-Amant gives his lectures to students in Marion Hall and on camera on Zoom simultaneously. For each lecture, he has over 900 learners, of which 420 are on site and more than 500 online. 

“Taking university courses this way was really daunting at first,” says Anas Abushaikha, a first-year biomedical science student. “I thought that attending virtually from behind a small screen, I was going to be neglected or that the questions I asked weren’t going to be answered. But it couldn’t have been further from that! The bimodal program, and especially as Professor St-Amant does it, is so crucial. A highlight for me is how inclusive and effective it was at setting an even playing field for all students, whether in person or at home.”  

To make his lectures more inclusive, Professor St-Amant encourages his in-person students to join the Zoom chat if they wish. This helps to bridge the two groups and a sense of community. 

“Professor St-Amant successfully blends the in-person and online cohorts by continuously answering questions from both groups during lectures,” says first-year student Neeharika Boni Bangari. “Throughout our lectures, he also posts ‘Wooclap’ questions, which are online multiple-choice questions that reflect the content we’re learning about. To answer them, we’re allowed to discuss with our peers. It’s a nice and easy way to interact with the online cohort.” 

St-Amant enjoys following what’s being said in the chat room. He quickly found that his students were sharing their ideas and answering others’ questions. This has been an effective way to see if learners really understand the material or if he needs to further develop the concept. 

“And I’m not a fool! I know there’s some chatting on Discord going on at the same time. They can use that as a way of venting. I just tell them to put all jokes and silly comments there, that I’ll never go and read them and that we’ll keep the Zoom chat for course-related discussions. And that works really well!” 


A new teaching method that’s likely here to stay 


“The pandemic has taught us many things,” says Aline Germain-Rutherford, vice-provost, academic affairs. “While we intend to offer most of our lectures in person in fall 2022, we know that the option of taking some courses online is very attractive to students who benefit from this additional flexibility. It’s therefore important to find the right balance between accessibility, agility and the desire of many to return to the campus.” 

For the  fall 2021 term, the University offered 465 bimodal courses (9% of courses offered at uOttawa). Its new target is to offer 555 bimodal courses (11% of courses offered) for the 2022 winter term. 

To reach that goal, the Teaching and Learning Support Service (TLSS) technical team has used over 100,000 feet of cable, 9,000 connectors, 8,000 boxes of equipment and 12,000 screws for display stands. 

Classrooms intended for bimodal courses are equipped with wireless lapel microphones that professors can use to talk to students learning both in class and remotely. These microphones have rechargeable batteries, which reduces costs and the University’s environmental footprint. 

In addition to the lapel microphones, there are 52 other microphones installed on the ceiling to allow interaction between in-class and remote-learning students. By the end of December, we aim to have a ceiling microphone installed in every lecture room used for bimodal courses. 


What the future has in store  


While continuing its mission to offer quality face-to-face programs on campus, uOttawa would like to build on what it has learned over the past 18 months by finding a more sustainable way of integrating online and bimodal courses, which are more accessible to certain current and future student groups. 

“It was certainly an extra challenge for our professors this term, and we thank them for their hard work, flexibility and creativity. For professors who might be interested, the TLSS provides excellent resources and is there to help facilitate the process,” adds Germain-Rutherford. 

The Office of the Vice-Provost, Academic Affairs is conducting major research this year in partnership with Carleton University, Brock University and the University of British Columbia (Okanagan campus). The purpose is to provide a better understanding of the teaching and learning experiences of professors and students in bimodal courses at the four universities, to identify best practices and ways to improve academic support and learning. 


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