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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Bortolin

A hybrid teaching model that includes creativity and institutional kindness

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

By Kathleen Bortolin, PhD

I'm a Liverpool FC fan, so the song You Will Never Walk Alone shows up on more than one of my playlists. But when it comes up these days, in light of all that is happening, it seems to take on an even more significant meaning. We’re all a little nervy right now. Students, instructors, deans, presidents. Mired down in pandemic planning, uncertainty, the thinking and the wondering and the choosing. Many instructors are not only redesigning and rethinking their courses for alternate delivery, but they are also having to learn and understand a variety of online tools to facilitate that redesign. This process in happy good times would take a few months of strong, positive energy, coupled with the curiosity and drive to fully embrace online learning. We no longer have these conditions (we never really did which is why so many of us don’t really teach this way). We have a couple of months. Maybe. Add to that looming doom about enrollment, genuine concern about our students and what the future holds for them, and our own reactions to pandemic living. It is, for many of us, an incredibly stressful time. You are not alone. If you have a colleague who has made this transition seamlessly and is dropping online learning jargon left and right, they are not the norm. But they are totally awesome, and you should be their friend because they may be able to help you. You don’t need to walk alone here.

Your Go-to's

You have probably accessed your institutional teaching and learning centre (TLC). If you haven’t, go now. Educational developers and instructional designers (just a couple of the somewhat vague titles we people hold), are a lifeline right now. They will, quite honestly, hold your hand through this process and set you and your students up for success. And it’s not just about how to use ZOOM, or learning management systems (LMSs), it’s about taking a holistic look at your courses, especially your learning outcomes and assessment strategies, and redesigning them for the online environment. It’s about evaluating your pedagogical choices and asking if they need to shift (or completely change) now that you’re teaching online. Having that conversation with experts who can inform both the online learning piece and the course design piece is one of the most valuable resources available to institutions and faculty right now. And yes, TLC also stands for tender loving care.

If you don’t have a teaching and learning centre at your institution (and bless you if this is the case), then you need to find your people. Even if you do have a TLC, connection and community can carry you here. Buddy up to jargon Betty above, or whoever you see being able to help you. I think everyone will need at least one friend-colleague, a frolleague, to work together, peer reviewing your processes and your outputs. I know this feels vulnerable sometimes, opening up and sharing all your ideas with someone else, especially some smarty-pants university colleague who, like you, has been raised on a steady diet of critical thinking, but here’s where you set your ego aside and fully embrace the fruits of that diet. Also, if the alternative is to float in a world of dread and nerves, finding a course design buddy, or two or three, is definitely the better option. Staying connected at this time is vital. We know this. At my teaching and learning centre, we’ve created a cohort-based week-long course redesign session to build community while at the same time modelling online learning and revisiting effective course design. This cohort provides necessary peer-connectivity that I believe is helping immeasurably with this transition.

Paulo Freire is my Jam

Paolo Freire is my jam, and has been since I was a bleary-eyed graduate student. I love his dreamy pedagogical Marxism and how he speaks truth to power every chance he gets, even if he’s dead. He’s all education for empowerment, and we’re in this together, and power imbalances and hierarchies are stupid and counter-productive in the classroom. Now, you might not glom onto that as much as me, but I think his pedagogical philosophy is really helpful now. If you’re going into fall online classes nervy and uncertain of how to teach in this new world order, why not be honest about that from the get-go? I’d have some way of sending this message to students early on:

So here’s the deal awesome new students of mine. I’ve been nervous and worried about this day for months. If it weren’t for the pandemic I’d be in my classroom right now, and far more confident and at ease. I’d also look better than I do on this ZOOM meeting or on this iPhone recording. But here we are. Here’s what I’ve decided to do in this course, here’s how I’m going to do it, and here’s why I’ve made those choices (yes, you can be transparent!). I’m going to be checking in with all of you periodically throughout the semester so that you can give me feedback on how it’s working. I want to know how it’s going, and what’s working so that I can learn even more about this way of teaching, and I can make adjustments (maybe). Ultimately, I want to give all of you the best possible experience that I can. That’s why I’m also interested in hearing from you through this anonymous (or not) survey about what you’re hoping to get out of this course and what you’re worried about, if anything. Finally, I hope to model for all of you how I did my best to rise to this challenge because going forward, we’re all going to have more challenges, and I think we don’t get through them in a vacuum. Did I mention that I’d look better if we were in the classroom?

Finally, Labour

When colleagues are losing their positions, and institutions getting their “lay off language” (that’s a thing) in order, it’s easy for us to default to the “well, I’m lucky to have a job” self-talk. Yes, but even amid all this madness, institutions, and those who hold them up (that’s all of us), must remember that we are all still human. We still have rights, and those rights mustn’t be forgotten, glossed over, or taken advantage of. Of course there will have to be a little give and a little take in these times. We have to support our institutions and our students to the best of our abilities, being the professional educators that we are, but institutions will also have to find creative, authentic ways to acknowledge and support faculty with what is turning out to be exhausting and crushing demands on wellness and sanity. Good institutions will rise to the challenge and show empathy and reasonableness, creativity and recognition. The not-so-good ones might lose their cool, bend beneath the pressure and maybe even kick a couple of us while we’re down. Therefore, it may fall to us to hold our own selves up. Look for the broken, for the exhausted and the worried, and if you have anything left in your tank, carry them as you can. Ask questions, and push back a little, ensuring our rights are respected while we work under immense pressure to redesign higher education. Like Paulo, we still have to speak truth to power when the need arises, even if it means getting kicked around a bit for doing it. There is a significant onus on faculty right now, but there is also an onus on institutions as employers: to find the courage and the creativity to ensure this effort gets recognized and supported. The good ones will make sure that we don't walk alone.

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