January 2021

New Year, New Aspirations, and Old Challenges

The hardest mountain to climb is the one within. (J. Lynn)

Today is the first day of the winter term in 2021. As always, early January is the time for new aspirations, new hopes, and new resolutions. This year is no different even if sometimes it feels like everything is different now. I would argue that at least in the context of teaching many of the challenges we are currently facing are the same we faced in the past years but failed to acknowledge.

For example, while teaching online or face-to-face, we have to think how to make it interesting, relevant and engaging for our students. We have to think what tools we can use to involve the students, what questions to ask, what problems to discuss… We have to think about student collaboration and the balance between individual and group work. It would be naïve to believe that we have resolved all these problems in the past and now the challenges of online education are completely new.

I think online education has forced us to face the “elephant in the room” that has been present for a while – student disengagement in learning. With all the challenges and uncertainties of the current situation, I think it will bring some positive outcomes to our education system. I have at least five reasons to believe so:

1) In order to convert our face-to-face courses to online platforms, we had to invest in teaching in terms of our course design. This is always a worthwhile investment and I think this refreshed many of the courses we teach. Teachers in K-12 and post-secondary classrooms had to invest heavily into their learning environments, re-considering the pedagogies they had been taking for granted for years…

2) We had to learn new technologies that can be used in an online classroom. And I do not mean “Zoom” or some other platforms. I mean educational technologies that can be used to engage students remotely. For example, smartphone apps, computer simulations, collaborative technologies, etc. Many of these technologies allow students to choose their own pace of learning. This is something that was hard to implement before. For example, if a lecture is recorded, one can watch it a number of times and then ask specific questions relevant to a particular part of the lecture. Students can also watch lectures created by other professors. Of course it assumes that the students are interested in learning. This is an even bigger issue in online classrooms…

3) We had to acknowledge that effective teaching and learning require significant investment of time and effort from both the instructors and the students. As a result, school and university administrators began actively investing into professional development of their staff. Moreover, many educators who were skeptical about new pedagogies and pedagogical innovations had no choice but to consider them. Some of them were surprised with the result. This is what I heard from a colleague regarding online education and their experience with it: “As a former critic of teaching online – for years I found the concept oxymoronic – my experience this term has changed my mind.” I believe many other post-secondary educators will agree.

4) We realized that online education has its advantages. By learning online, many of the traditional roadblocks had been removed. For example, many instructors were able to invite inspirational speakers to their classrooms who would not have been able to come before. Thus the students had an opportunity to interact with these wonderful speakers. The instructors were able to incorporate the resources created by others and support students who were learning at different speeds. Yet, the online learning environment increases the gap between the students who are motivated to learn and the students who aren’t. So while some students were able to thrive, many fell behind because they had to assume responsibility for their own learning. This is something many of our students are not yet ready to do.

5) Many teachers and educators reached out to the larger community and joined international networks of professionals facing similar problems in their classrooms. The proliferation of online events helped increase the engagement of instructors and teachers. Thus, it facilitated the connections and support network that transcended the school or even the country borders.

All in all, I expect this year to see a lot of positive outcomes in how our students are engaged in learning. I also hope these positive shifts will stay with us beyond 2021. I would like to wish our teachers, students and their families a productive and successful 2021!

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