University of Ottawa Chemistry and Biomolecular Science Professor Alison Flynn, MCIC, has had a longstanding interest in the way her chosen discipline is taught and the tools that instructors devote to that purpose. Her efforts led to her joining the prestigious ranks of the 3M Teaching Fellows in 2017 and she has been especially enthusiastic about the prospects of digital technologies to help students master even the most challenging material. As the arrival of coronavirus has transformed Canada’s post-secondary classrooms into entire on-line settings, Flynn now finds her understanding of electronic pedagogy has likewise been transformed into a practical reality. She acknowledges that it is, for one and all, a very teachable moment.

Has your life led up to this?

I do a lot of on-line teaching. I teach flipped and blended classes and my group builds on-line learning resources. Some are for chemistry and some are just for learning — we have a Growth and Goals module that is literally about learning to learn. But I love the face-to-face environment. I can build rapport with students, and I can facilitate their conversations with each other. We’re digging into hard, messy stuff, so when they’re experiencing those times when things are really hard in learning, a lot of the time we can be there together. As much as I’m very comfortable on-line, that face-to-face time is invaluable.

With that face-to-face environment gone, how are your students responding?

They’re still in the land of uncertainty. They’re game, but they’re understandably nervous and worried about what happens if the tech breaks, or they can’t get on-line, and will they be penalized. They don’t know how their final exams are going to go and what the expectations are going to look like. That’s been cleared up in my class now — I’ve invited lots of interaction with students, so they could ask their questions, give suggestions. I’ve also asked them if they have questions that have to do with what’s going on outside the class. Some of them are in residences and they’re worried about getting home; they’re worried about where food will come from; they’re worried about these very practical things, as well as their academic goals.

What did you do to reassure them?

Given that we’re a science course, I spoke with them about the fact that it’s our responsibility as scientists to ensure that the sources we’re consulting are good and reliable. And in terms of spreading rumours, we should actually stop the ones that we can’t back up. We have a responsibility not to repeat them until we’ve done some fact-checking. What I’ve been really impressed with is how responsible and thoughtful the students are being on-line. I’ve seen only amazing things coming from them.

How is the rest of the teaching community faring in this new environment?

People are talking about teaching and learning at a rate we haven’t been before. We’re sharing resources and sharing ideas. The community-building around teaching and learning has accelerated in a fantastic way. I had just taught a course in chemistry education for graduate students and their main project was to help a professor improve a course. The caring and the thoughtfulness that these graduate students are bringing to help professors makes me think there are opportunities here for new models of the way we do teaching and learning. It doesn’t have to be siloes. We can bring together not only each other as community members, but all of the students who are involved.

But there are definitely challenges, right?

Whenever we’re learning, we get unsettled and that’s part of the learning process. Crafting this on-line environment so that you can facilitate learning — it’s tough. It takes a lot of expertise and a lot of work to build that rapport with people. As we’ve seen from massive on-line courses, you can’t just dump a bunch of stuff on-line; even if it’s well designed, we’re still not seeing really good success rates. We’ll get through these next few weeks and then we’ll have some real planning to do.

What are you taking from this experience?

I’ve been focusing on what the students really need to learn, how we get down to the very essentials. I already communicated regularly with the students, but what’s front-and-centre now is thinking about what to ask them, as well as how and when to give feedback. As we’ve built on-line learning tools, we have always had students as part of our development team because they’re the ones who are living the system. I’ve already worked with that principle of involving the stakeholders from the start, as part of the development team, but this situation has broadened student engagement for me. This situation will accelerate the development of on-line learning but at the same time I’m hoping that people will realize just how much personal interaction brings to education.

What’s happening in your lab?

My lab is a computer-based lab, but I have spoken with some people who have shut down their labs. Others have kept their labs going by practising staying at safe distances, washing surfaces, and taking all those recommendations. It will be interesting to see what comes next. Canada has set up a whole bunch of emergency funding to accelerate Covid research. Well, how are these researchers going to keep functioning if their labs are being shut down? Exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis, but it’s not just the research lab itself — it’s all the supports around keeping the lab running. It’s going to be really tricky working through some of those issues.

What else are you doing to help you and your students deal with all of this?

We can still go outside and walk around — get our fresh-air time — but I worry about our mental health. One of my consistent recommendations has been to keep things simple, keep communications going, but also be flexible and understanding. We can’t guess all the things that students are going through right now, but we can make a point and purposely be flexible and listening. Those are things we have control of as educators.

Back indoors, what are you binging?

A friend out west tweeted that Seinfeld bloopers were a great thing to watch. So yesterday I watched a whole bunch of them. It was absolutely hilarious.