Retirees' Association

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Dr. Mary Ann McColl Interview

RAQ President Diane Kelly in conversation with Dr. Mary Ann McColl, professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s University.

Learning to teach during a pandemic: One faculty member’s perspective on pivoting to online learning (December 2020)

In another of the series of conversations that RAQ President Diane Kelly is having with faculty, staff, and students about the learning and teaching struggles and successes during this COVID-19 year at Queen’s, here she speaks with Dr. Mary Ann McColl, a well known, highly regarded professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s University.

Dr. McColl teaches foundational courses in theory and disability to occupational therapy students and is the Academic Lead for the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance and the Assistant Editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. Her primary research areas include disability policy, long term health and spinal cord injury, spirituality and disability, and sociocultural aspects of occupation. She is the author of 16 books.

Dr. McColl was not teaching when the university lockdown took place in March 2020, so she did not have to pivot immediately into a new method of communicating with her students. She did, however, reconfigure her two fall semester face-to-face graduate level courses into an online format. She knew that the courses would have to be accessible throughout the lockdown (not knowing how long the lockdown would be in place), and she also wanted to prepare for circumstances should she or her students become ill.

Dr. McColl praised the staff in the Office of Professional Development and Educational Scholarship in the Faculty of Health Sciences for the support they gave her. She received individual tutorials on how to reconfigure her courses to meet the challenges of not being able to talk directly to her students. She had to re-think how best to convey the content online in short 10-minute modules that were engaging, informative, and allowed for self-directed study. The question she always asked herself was: What do the students need from me as the instructor that they can’t glean from the text and other resources?

In addition to teaching online, Dr. McColl meets with her classes of 50 students once every two weeks in a large 400-person physical space to discuss case studies. This is allowed to do this because her students are graduate professional students who engage in in-person labs.

Dr. McColl is satisfied that the learning environment for her students, while not as engaging as encountering her and fellow students in person, has not been unduly negatively affected by the lockdown.

I asked Dr. McColl about the struggles associated with the new online teaching model. She responded that the technical challenges have been significant for faculty, staff and students alike. Professors had to tool up very quickly, and although the central Instructional Technology Service Support has been extraordinary, she said there has been a steep learning curve for all in gaining the necessary expertise and finding supports for online learning. Fortunately, Dr. McColl finds that her students are understanding and adaptive.

She does, however, worry about students who are struggling academically and personally. It is more challenging to see students in the “virtual classroom,” and may be more challenging for them to reach out to the professors remotely. Dr. McColl also worries about her students’ clinical learning opportunities as it is understandably very difficult to find preceptors during this period and some students may not find placements.

Like many other faculty members, Dr. McColl’s research has slowed down. Many of her research projects include in-person components that cannot easily happen at this time. She is optimistic, however, about the future and ready to dive into new research opportunities that will arise once life returns to a new state of normal.

Although this has been a challenging time, Dr. McColl believes that by working together and keeping a positive attitude, faculty have been able to meet and respond to the challenges of the lockdown. She has learned valuable lessons about other methods of teaching, and she will incorporate them into next year’s classes.