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Teaching and learning online

Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) John Pierce on Queen’s efforts to create a successful remote educational environment.

Photograph of John Pierce, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning)
Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) John Pierce says that the university undertook its largest single-time investment in teaching technology to prepare for remote instruction this fall.

As Queen’s announced that most classes in the fall semester would be delivered remotely to protect community health and safety during COVID-19, faculty, staff, and administration across the university set out to develop strategies for making the term as successful as possible.

Now that the semester is underway, the Queen’s Gazette connected with Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) John Pierce to find out how Queen’s prepared for the challenges of moving to a new learning environment. Touching on topics such as technology, assessment, and accommodations, Pierce explains some of the resources that are in place and some things that students and instructors can expect throughout the fall.

The large-scale move to remote teaching and learning is likely the most comprehensive and sudden shift in course delivery in Queen’s history. Has the university made any specific investments in tools or programs to help facilitate this move to online instruction?

Since March, Queen’s has undertaken its largest single-time investment in teaching technology in the last decade. The investments have been made on two fronts. The first is to supply instructors with the technology required to transfer their teaching materials into an online form and make up for the inability to use physical classrooms. This includes video production software, captioning software, assessment software, and software that enables peer group work in an online environment.

There was also investment in support teams to help instructors figure out how to use this new technology. Queen’s IT Services reinforced its support teams and added longer hours into their support systems. The faculties and schools also did more to build up support for instructors. And the offices of the principal and the provost invested money in the Centre for Teaching and Learning to create teams of students who could help instructors with the technological aspects of their courses. And this support can range from instruction on how to upload videos for courses to more complicated uses of peer-related software tools.

While the university has invested in these new tools to address COVID-19, they will also be useful in the future when we return to on-campus instruction. So we believe this is a significant long-term investment in teaching and learning.

Beyond technology, what other preparations have been made for remote teaching and learning in the fall?

As in-person classes were cancelled in March, meetings began to discuss what a remote teaching and learning environment would look like for a full semester. Throughout the summer, we established a full new set of guidelines to help instructors and students move to remote instruction. In the new guidelines, we’ve tried to reconsider a number of aspects of instruction, from how to present material, how to engage with students, and even how to assess and examine students. The guidelines represent a kind of re-envisioning of what the teaching and learning environment at Queen’s is like.

At Queen’s, there is usually a decentralized approach to teaching and learning, where the faculties and schools develop their programs on their own. But we came to an understanding across the university that we need to coordinate more because we all shared the challenges of the pandemic. The Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) website underwent a significant overhaul to centralize a number of guidelines and resources.

There were also a number of training modules and sessions set up both by the faculties themselves and centrally by the Centre for Teaching and Learning. And these were primarily for instructors to adapt to a new environment. Those sessions went on all through the summer and were well attended by both experienced instructors and new instructors.

We also had to think about accommodations. Because we realized that this new environment would present special challenges to students. Both for those who need formal accommodations but even students who do not normally need accommodations are under new stresses, such as creating their own workspaces and supplying their own Internet connection.

With students taking classes from across Canada and around the world this semester, finding a balance between synchronous and asynchronous teaching seems very important. Can you say more about how Queen’s is approaching this issue?

We have a new challenge in the timing of synchronous activities during remote instruction. Since we have students from all over the world and from different time zones, new challenges arise with synchronous instructional activities. Students in different time zones might have to get up in the middle of the night to take part in a synchronous event, and those late night periods are not conducive to the best learning experience. Many instructors are moving largely or exclusively to remote instruction to avoid this problem; some are holding several of the same synchronous activities to ensure that no student has to engage with the course at unreasonable hours. Finally, we are advising all instructors to ensure that whatever material is presented synchronously is recorded or conveyed to all students in an alternative form so no student is disadvantaged. Our guidelines to synchronous vs. asynchronous teaching are available on the Teaching and Learning website.

With all these changes, what do you think students can expect from their remote classes in general?

Students will see a variety of approaches to remote teaching and learning. There will be a variety of uses of technology and a variety of types of pedagogy. This is a fact of moving rapidly to a largely new model of course delivery. Some instructors will use technology in intensive ways. And for others it will be less intensive. While there are many different methods used in in-class instruction, the varieties of approaches used in remote instruction may be even more wide ranging.

There’s no getting around the fact that this new environment is challenging for instructors and students alike. But there is a high level of commitment on all sides to make this work.

With the change in learning environment there will probably also be changes in how students are evaluated as well. How will test and exam proctoring – and assessment more generally – work for the fall semester?

Extensive thinking has gone into how we assess students in this new learning environment. A lot of instructors have looked into alternative forms of assessment to the standard exam. However, for many instructors and disciplines, exams are still the best way to assess student learning. So there are courses where remote proctoring will be used for the fall semester, both for term tests and finals.

Queen’s has carefully examined two tools, Examity and Proctor Track, and approved their use after determining that they meet the privacy and security requirements of the university. Both of these tools have been used in the past, and they will be used going forward. These tools ensure the integrity of exams.

Queen’s has also put together a guideline on academic considerations technical failures or in-the-moment interruptions that might occur while a student is taking a test or exam. It says that if a student has a technical failure or interruption in their workspace that was unpredictable or random, there should be consideration and allowance to accept that as a bona fide problem. And the instructor should work with the student to address that.

This does not apply to chronic failures. For instance, if a student has a persistently unstable Internet connection and makes no attempt to address the issue, this situation does not warrant an academic consideration. The same goes for workspaces. Students are responsible for finding a workspace that generally enables them to complete their work. But it’s understood that there may be momentary noises or interruptions that prevent students from completing their work.

To help ensure that their remote test or exam goes smoothly, all students should take a practice test on the exam platform to identify any technical challenges that might arise.

No matter the form of any test or exam, Queen’s will ensure that all formal accommodation needs of a student are met. There is more information on remote proctoring on the Registrar’s website.

Are there any resources available for faculty or students who want assistance as they go through a full semester of remote courses?

The Centre for Teaching and Learning has many resources available on its website, including guidelines and training materials for remote instruction.

Queen’s IT Services provides tutorials on their website about using remote teaching and learning technologies.

Students can find resources through the Division of Student Affairs. For example, Student Academic Success Services offers academic skills resources. And Queen’s Student Accessibility Services can offer assistance with academic accommodations.

The faculties and schools also have their own resources and supports in place, and you can find more information about them on their websites.

Do you have any words of advice for students or instructors for the fall term?

This is a challenging new environment for everyone. And there are obviously stresses associated with this new learning environment. I hope that students who are feeling large amounts of stress will seek support through resources like Student Wellness Services and Empower Me, and that they keep a line of communication open with their instructors. I also hope that everyone will stay in close touch with their peers and colleagues throughout this time. Because we all have a common goal to make this semester as successful as possible, and we’ll need to support each other to do so.