We live in an age of disruption. The sharing economy has likely changed your behaviour around booking hotels, riding in taxis, or ordering food. These massive transformations have been made possible through a combination of technology and human creativity. Yet, nature has once again demonstrated its awesome power as the ultimate agent of disruption.
COVID-19 has instigated a level of global disruption that is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes.
Across Canada, individuals have been asked to engage in social distancing. Stores and restaurants are voluntarily shutting their doors as a temporary measure. Governments have limited the size of gatherings. Conferences have been cancelled, including the CCCE 2020 that was planned for Winnipeg this May.
From coast to coast to coast, post-secondary campuses have transformed from thriving communities of learning and knowledge creation into nearly ghost towns. My own institution, Mount Royal University in Calgary, has asked faculty to work from home and only come to campus if necessary. All courses are being transitioned to “alternative delivery” — meaning learning that does not take place face-to-face — including laboratory training and research-based courses. For many faculty and students, this is their first experience with remote and online learning, two subjects I’ve written about before in this column.
On Saturday, March 14, at the direction of the Alberta provincial government, my university began the transition toward alternative delivery models. Within hours, I had faculty from across the country send me a meme of an unfinished horse drawing. Like the horse in the sketching, the sudden change in delivery model was going to result in an end-of-course experience very different from the start of semester.
While the remote and online learning communities have refined methods as technology has evolved over past decades, in this current crisis there hasn’t been time for faculty to carefully read the literature and identify best practices. To make matters more complicated, this challenge emerged nearly simultaneously around the world. No post-pandemic analyses exist to inform us on how best to support faculty and students in moving an organic chemistry lab into an online learning space with only a few days to plan and implement the transition. Faculty were asking themselves how they could support students in achieving the same learning outcomes, or even if that was an appropriate goal given the situation.
Later that same Saturday evening, I saw an email from a chemistry department chair that outlined expectations for their department’s transition to online delivery. They included the now familiar unfinished horse drawing meme. The chair expressed concern for faculty members feeling stressed about the challenge of redesigning a face-to-face learning experience for an online delivery with only days to complete the work. There were two key takeaways: (1) the focus of the transition should be on helping students feel supported and lowering their anxiety, and (2) the speed of transition is more important than perfection when responding to a pandemic. Adaptation to online learning was likely going to be an on-going process, requiring flexibility from everyone involved. This was a valuable reminder that teaching chemistry is a human endeavor. Some people might be facing challenges of limited access to the internet, while others may be struggling to work or study during social distancing with small children at home. As Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi tweeted, we can all help our community during this pandemic with three actions: “stay home, be kind, save lives”.
It was during this time of transitioning to alternative delivery that something amazing was happening. Using email, listservs, websites, and social media, educators around the world proactively began sharing simple and straightforward tips for moving a class online.
Centres of teaching and learning at post-secondary institutions have also played a vital role in helping faculty identify solutions. Less than 24 hours after the cancellation of all face-to-face teaching at the University of Calgary, staff at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning had created a guide on essentials for moving your course online. In the same time frame, the team at the Mount Royal University Academic Development Centre created a guide they called Keep Calm and Teach Online.
This same work has played out at universities, colleges, trade schools, polytechnicals, and CEGEPs across the country, all providing guidelines reflecting their institutional policies and local laws. A one-solution-works-for-all approach clearly would not work, particularly given the variation in the interaction between online communication tools and provincial privacy laws. Yet, even in those discussions, faculty were looking beyond the existing barriers to focus on supporting one another in finding solutions.
In one of my own courses, The Science and Politics of Nuclear Energy, the shift to online learning resulted in losing the face-to-face debates about Canadian nuclear energy policy. My co-instructor, Dr. Duane Bratt, Professor and Chair in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, phoned me the afternoon of our first online debate. He was thrilled at how our students had embraced the sudden change of plans, engaging deeply in the post-debate discussion through our online forums. Our students were clearly accepting their part in creating meaningful learning experiences despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
This pandemic has disrupted our way of life. It has forced drastic and immediate changes on our educational system. Yet, it has nurtured the conditions for increased communication, collaboration, and reflection on instructional design in chemistry. COVID-19 may have moved us further apart physically, but through its disruption it has brought us together as a community of educators and learners like never before.
Brett McCollum is a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow, MRU Board of Governor’s Chair in Educational Leadership, and chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). His research focuses on effective uses of technology for chemistry education, student development of chemical language and representational competencies, and approaches to enhancing student engagement in research partnerships.