Feb. 4, 2021Print | PDF
Professor Robert McLeman used the advice he typically gives Wilfrid Laurier University students in his undergraduate Environment, Sustainability and Society class when transitioning the course to a remote learning environment last fall.
“I want my students to know it is okay to feel overwhelmed,” says McLeman. “Once you recognize the significance of life’s major milestones and transition points, you can exhale and then start to think about answering the important question: ‘Where’s my community here?’.”
Many of the more than 200 students in the course are in their first year of university and study across disciplines. The question McLeman wanted to address ahead of the fall 2020 term was how to restructure the course in a way that made it easy to navigate while integrating meaningful opportunities for virtual engagement that would allow students to find their community.
Using remote instruction resources developed by Laurier’s Teaching and Learning team, McLeman integrated connection points for students in an attempt to create experiences similar to on-campus interactions. He also introduced new assignments that provided students the freedom to align personal interests with course concepts and found ways to share his personality and interests with the class.
“Regardless of how they go about it, it is truly meaningful when a professor, teaching assistant or instructional assistant takes it upon themselves to make students feel comfortable and welcome,” says student Cameron Beard.
The buzz of students catching up with each other before a lecture or post-class questions for the professor are a challenge – but not an impossibility – to reconceptualise in a remote environment, McLeman says. He advocates for regular use of the chat function during virtual lectures so students who are joining in from around the globe can engage with course concepts and get to know one another.
“Even though we’re not physically together, students need to feel like they are active participants in their courses and a part of Laurier.”
At the start of the first lecture of fall semester, McLeman posed a question: “What band should I be listening to right now?” That created a burst of activity in the chat room.
“We’re all stuck at home and music is such a part of all of our lives,” says McLeman “I had so many messages coming in and some students who are musicians shared links to their own music. It started a conversation and established a point of connection between us.”
In her role as an instructional assistant for the course, Environmental Studies student Edi Cadham moderates the class chat and lets McLeman know when someone has a comment or question to share. Cadham completed the course in 2019, so she also serves as a peer-to-peer expert, answering some content-related questions as well as questions about expectations outlined in the course syllabus.
Another way personality can shine through online is by using pictures and video. McLeman records and posts online introductory videos to launch the theme for each week of class and adds pictures of himself working in the field to his presentations. He also asks students who are able to turn their cameras and microphones on at the end of class so they can have some “face time.”
“This made a huge difference and made me feel less isolated despite the circumstances,” says student Rachel Biro. “Although we were all in different locations it never felt that way.”
Individual personality also came into play as McLeman redesigned his assignments for remote delivery. His new “choose-your-own” option allows students to use their creativity in creating playlists, memes and travel posters that encourage a deeper understanding of and personal connection to key course concepts, including biodiversity, food systems and climate change.
“I want to continuously improve my teaching by focusing on authentic interactions and engagement, which allows students to see that they are still progressing toward their goals.”
“Professor McLeman not only made our learning as stress free as possible, he also made me excited about environmental studies,” says Biro.
McLeman says teaching in a remote environment gives instructors the chance to provide students with more influence and control over their learning.
“Even though we’re not physically together, students need to feel like they are active participants in their courses and a part of Laurier,” says McLeman.
McLeman is back in the remote classroom with Cadham and a new cohort of students for the spring 2021 term. He says he will continue to expand his community of practice so he is ready to adapt to whatever changes and challenges lie ahead.
“It’s like a marathon and we’ve just passed a midway point,” says McLeman. “I want to continuously improve my teaching by focusing on authentic interactions and engagement, which allows students to see that they are still progressing toward their goals.”
For Beard, Biro and other Laurier students who made their entry into university during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dedicated efforts of instructors who acknowledge the need for flexibility and authentic connections helped make the experience easier.
“In the eyes of a first-year student acclimating to university life, their efforts calmed my nerves and made me feel like a valued member of the Laurier community,” says Beard.
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