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Embracing the risk: Why online post-secondary studies might be worth it


Kathleen Bortolin, Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Specialist, Vancouver Island University


Last week, a group of provosts from BC research-based universities wrote an open letter to students about online course delivery for the fall. I’m not a provost (thank goodness) but I work at a university, in a teaching and learning centre. My colleagues and I are front-line workers in the call to move post-secondary education online, supporting and guiding professors in this remarkable redesign. I'm also not a student, but I can imagine that this is an extremely difficult time for many, one with great uncertainty, and maybe even a bit of madness. I think we all wish it were different circumstances that we were returning to this fall. I wanted to share my observations, as someone who is working to support this transition on the ground, to inform the conversation from the instructional design perspective.


Students are the focus right now

When I meet (in ZOOM) with instructors these days, some of our conversations are about the nuts and bolts of online learning and the tools that support them. We talk about our learning management system (LMS), how to create dynamic and engaging screencasts, and how to balance synchronous (ZOOM) and asynchronous (LMS) learning time. But many more of our conversations, and the ones we pour over, are the conversations about students. Those conversations spiral around issues of equity, connectedness, and safety in online environments. Again and again, many instructors, at least at my institution, want to know how to stay connected to students, how to design courses to maximize a sense of safety, and how to use the tools in such a way to aim for better equity. Although there is anxiety around learning and using online systems, there is just as much anxiety around student needs and wellness. Never before have I had this many conversations about safety, empathy, and accessibility in higher education, conversations seeking solutions and best practices for all students, including our most vulnerable.


The counterintuitive effect of COVID on pedagogy

Everyone is talking about how COVID will change the way we teach forever, the implication being that we will be more digitally oriented. But I think there is another dimension of this change that is emerging: post-secondary teaching may evolve to be, somewhat counterintuitively, even more student-centered, wellness-based, and empathy-enriched. I share this so that students know that instructors are not just dumping content into online platforms. It has been my experience that professors are now contemplating deeply the effects all of this has on students, and are committed to mindfully and empathetically redesigning courses for students at this challenging time.


A missed opportunity?

We still don’t know how this will all shake out, once COVID is eradicated or there is a treatment for it. But we know it will change us, and the way we live and learn. Just as education transitions to an online model, so goes the world. Opting not to attend post-secondary this upcoming year could be an opportunity missed. In addition to the content, students will be exposed to, and develop, key online learning and communication skills, two areas that I believe will not disappear post-COVID. This cohort of students will emerge into whatever new world order exists comfortable navigating ZOOM meetings, accessing material online, creating a variety of alternative assignments using multimedia tools, and collaborating and communicating virtually. Whereas many of us struggled learning these new skills rapidly, students will be supported through courses in a way that will imprint on them many of the very skills and abilities a post-COVID world will be relying on. Choosing not to go at this pivotal time may set some students back when the world re-emerges. In this way, post-secondary studies at this time could provide an on-ramp to the post-COVID world and the skills and abilities it will most likely seek.


A thrilling embrace

Anyway you spin it, post-secondary studies will be different this fall. And we have a right to mourn the loss of what was, students and instructors alike. But despite the trauma of the last few months, the world is dusting itself off and moving on. And that includes education. Instructors will be spending their summers learning, redesigning, calming their nerves, and rising to this challenge with empathy, creativity and student-centeredness. Post-secondary students are positioned to sit squarely in the midst of this incredible moment, this remarkable time of change, and to benefit from, and contribute to, one of the most phenomenal educational shifts in history. It’s a thrilling time. What if we embraced it?


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© 2015 by Kathleen Bortolin.