Online learning: Not skipping a beat!

Posted on Thursday, July 30, 2020

Student seen from the back, sitting at her desk in front of a computer screen.

Few could have predicted the rapid change in circumstances and to the status quo brought about by COVID-19. The impact of the health crisis has been felt worldwide, without exception, and will most likely have repercussions for a long time to come. The higher education sector has not escaped this situation and has had to adapt quickly, relying on innovative solutions and technologies to deal with this changing reality. The hurried transition to distance learning has placed everyone on a steep learning curve.

Amid this turbulence, an unprecedented rentrée is about to unfold and the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute (OLBI) is poised to welcome, engage with, and enlighten students as they embark on a unique “virtual” fall term. It raises the important question: Can learning be as effective online?

For Professor Margret Norenberg, who has been teaching English as a second language (ESL) for more than 20 years, the short answer is: it absolutely can!

Teacher support and collaboration

“Combining solid pedagogy with relevant technology makes remote learning a superb experience,” says Margret Norenberg, who was not fazed by the sudden shift to e-learning thanks to the valuable support OLBI professors received in preparation for the spring-summer term.

OLBI organized meetings for faculty members to share ideas, best practices and technological know-how, as well as various webinars to help familiarize them with online pedagogy, evaluation and assessment.

OLBI teachers also benefitted from the expertise of colleagues such as Martine Rhéaume, a blended courses specialist, whose enthusiasm for remote learning was contagious as she mapped out course development processes and highlighted the ways various digital tools could increase student engagement.

For example, Norenberg connected her 30 students, dispersed across Canada, China and Kuwait, by using the “breakout rooms” feature in Zoom to divide her class into smaller, region-based groups to work on assignments. This web conferencing tool allowed her to present a video to students living in different areas of the world and then have them collaborate in real time in a virtual classroom. 

Margret Norenberg

Margret Norenberg

Remote learning: two main approaches, multiple benefits

There are two main approaches to remote learning, each presenting distinct benefits. They can be used complementarily for greater effect.

The synchronous learning format offers real-time interaction via teleconferencing, live-chatting and live-streaming lectures. This type of teaching encourages classroom engagement, instructional depth and dynamic learning. Barring technical difficulties, classes following this format can continue without disruption.

The asynchronous learning format offers more flexibility for students to work at their own pace thanks to lesson modules, video content, virtual libraries and lecture notes uploaded to a learning management system (LMS) such as Brightspace. It can also include communicative exchanges across discussion boards or social media platforms. Students can access their assignments and meet requirements within a flexible timeframe.

According to Norenberg, the benefits of distance learning far outweigh any challenges. However, technical issues can be frustrating. Additionally, some students and professors report experiencing feelings of isolation in remote learning situations.

To reassure and engage her students, Norenberg organized individual Zoom sessions with them.

“These 30-minute sessions gave me the opportunity to speak with a student one-on-one, answer questions, provide reassurance and establish a personal connection,” she says.

Encouragement, engagement and support

Although students and professors are not together in a physical classroom, Norenberg stresses the importance of ensuring that learners feel their professor’s presence in other ways. She offers the following tips:

  • Spend time planning and organizing to ensure effective learning and student engagement 
  • Be enthusiastic and positive about online learning and your students will be the same
  • Be comfortable with the video conferencing platform you are using, test your microphone and speakers, and ensure that your internet connection is stable 
  • Put attendance protocols in place early
  • Set expectations for student participation. Should students use the “raise hand” feature to ask questions, type messages into the chat, or are both acceptable?
  • Confirm that your links to homework and resources work
  • Use a variety of instructional methods in visual, audio and text formats to meet the specific learning needs of all students
  • Give timely and constructive feedback by using various digital tools and features
  • Encourage student autonomy or self-directed learning. Present students with a calendar of assignments for the entire course so they can budget their time accordingly
  • Involve students in independent goal setting at the beginning so that they can fully benefit from the online learning process
  • Encourage ESL students to speak with their professors or to refer to the OLBI resources when they require more guidance or support

During these uncertain times, technology is an excellent tool for making connections and maintaining a strong sense of community. In tandem with the professor and the curriculum, technology becomes a “third teacher” intent on making learning more enjoyable, engaging and accessible to a promising generation of open-minded, culturally sensitive, astute learners.

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