With Canada in the midst of a second wave of COVID-19, faculty are breathing a sigh of relief that at least they won’t be asked to navigate a second sudden shift to online instruction. That experience back in March 2020 was dubbed ‘pandemic pedagogy,’  ‘emergency remote teaching,’ or ‘hell’ depending on who you talked to. Fortunately, the decision to move most fall 2020 lecture courses – and some labs – online was made months ago as a proactive measure to provide instructors time to intentionally design effective remote learning experiences. Now that we are well into the semester, I reached out to three teaching-focused faculty to hear if their preparations and expectations are aligning with the realities of planned pandemic teaching.

Physically-distanced labs pay off

Robin Stoodley is an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia. When we met over video chat, I noted that his normally clean-shaven face had acquired a mustache.

“It’s my coarse COVID pre-filter,” he joked.

Humour aside, Stoodley spent his summer navigating a new teaching landscape that weaved new public health orders into the normal conversation between program outcomes and administrative oversight.

Discussions with his colleagues led to the decision that the experiential learning outcomes associated with their third-year integrated laboratory course were sufficiently important to offer face-to-face labs with appropriate COVID-19 safety measures.

“Planning for lab courses was a major undertaking,” Stoodley said. “We developed coherent plans for physically distanced labs early on, and these were viewed favourably by all other units on campus, such as enrollment services and classroom services. Even then, running anything face-to-face involved intense negotiations.”

According to Stoodley, those negotiations were well worth the effort. Students are appreciating the opportunity to be on campus, even if that means waiting outside the building before each experiment to have their temperature checked and attesting that they have no COVID-19 symptoms.

“Students are diligently following the additional safety protocols,” Stoodley remarked. “We normally would have them working in pairs, but now everyone works alone. We’ve created cohorts and have about half as many in the lab at a time.”

Of course, having any face-to-face component creates additional complications for international students. If these students can’t be present for the lab, is it fair to offer face-to-face labs at all?

Given the important role of the integrated lab within the UBC Chemistry degree, Stoodley wanted to maintain the in-person lab experience. He worked with the university to issue letters of academic requirement so that the affected international students could choose to enter the country, even while border closure measures are in effect.

The decision to run the lab face-to-face saw immediate benefits. Students say they appreciate the opportunity to safely gather with their peers, adding that it has helped them feel less isolated.

Blending in-person experiments with remote analysis

On the other side of Metro Vancouver, overlooking Burrard Inlet at Simon Fraser University, some undergraduate chemistry labs are also running face-to-face. John Canal, Senior Lecturer in the SFU Chemistry Department, based his planning for the fall semester on data the department collected during the summer semester.

“We found that students performed the same [in the lecture] as with regular semesters,” Canal explained. “I went in with the expectation that if it is well-organized then students should respond to it positively. So far this semester, that seems to be the case.”

The result was a plan to offer second-year inorganic labs using a blend of in-person experiments, hosted early in the semester in case another lockdown happened, and remote analysis-focused experiments later in the semester.

“On the day of lab, they fill out a statement that they aren’t sick,” Canal said. “Then, they [the 20 students] arrive for lab in C9001,” a lecture hall intended for 500 students, “and remain spread out. This is all managed by the Dean’s office. They sign them in and then bring them to the lab.”

The result is a strange spectacle: 20 students, masked, single file, and physically distanced, marching down a long empty hallway, descending a flight of stairs, and continuing their macabre parade along a second even longer corridor into an attached building. They arrive at the lab, normally used for much larger organic chemistry sections, and quietly separate into three smaller lines staged in front of the lab’s entrances.

“There’s no lab lecture. Students prepare ahead of time through online videos,” Canal said. “You go in, do the experiment, and leave.”

Each student is provided with their own bin of equipment. Once the experiment is complete, they wash the equipment and put it back in the bin, which is disinfected using a sprayer. Then it gets transported across the hall to another lab that has been temporarily converted into a massive sanitization room where it is washed again. The TAs spray all the counters, wipe them down, and sanitize each student’s melting point apparatus and balance.

“The thing about in-person labs is that you get to see them. You get to ask them ‘how’s it going’. And you get feedback that it’s actually not that bad of a transition. They are handling this all better than I expected.”

Predicted gap year didn’t materialize

Meanwhile on the east coast, Angela Crane has been working furiously with a team of instructors and TAs to deliver an online version of general chemistry at Dalhousie University.

“Last time I checked we had 1451 students in the [two] courses. We aren’t seeing any more of a change in enrolment than we usually would,” said Crane, the university’s First Year Chemistry Program Coordinator.

Clearly, Dalhousie students aren’t taking the COVID gap year that was predicted.

“Lecture, lab – we are entirely online. Technically, the course can be taken 100 per cent asynchronously, but we do have an optional synchronous workshop for anyone that wants an in-person like feeling.”

I asked Crane how they were tracking if students were engaging with the materials in a meaningful way versus just clicking on the videos while watching Netflix. Crane assured me that students were engaged.

“At the end of a module, there are a few final questions to ‘check your understanding’ that blend concepts together. There aren’t worked solutions to those questions, only the final answer. As a result, students participate in the discussion board where they deliberate with their peers and TAs and try to figure out how to get the answers to the challenge questions.”

If managing a discussion board for nearly 1,500 students sounds like a full-time job, that’s because it is.

“The discussion boards are active. Very, very active. We have TAs available for in-person meetings, but those aren’t well attended so we’ve reassigned many of those TAs to supporting the discussion board. As soon as we answer one question, a new one is posted.” Crane noted that while this might seem like a never-ending task, it proves that the students see it as a valuable tool for keeping connected with the course while learning remotely.

Creating all the asynchronous learning materials didn’t happen overnight. At the start of the summer, the department hired 10 TAs to help create the learning modules with the team of instructors.

“All of these senior students had experience with the course. They had taken it at Dal. They’d been a TA in the course. Most important, they’d shown an interest in developing the modules.”

Dalhousie’s course design also considered complications that can arise from Halifax weather. The planning proved valuable when downtown Halifax lost power at the end of September, just as 400 students were writing a midterm.

“We live in Halifax, so we intentionally scheduled students to write their online midterms at staggered times, just in case something like this happened. The power was on at Dal, the server hosting the exam still worked, and I had power in my office. I posted instructions right away. Students could check with their phones and see that we had a plan. It worked out, but I was glad it wasn’t everyone writing at the same time.”

Stoodley, Canal, and Crane are three of the many chemistry faculty teaching from their homes during this pandemic. Despite the challenges of remote teaching, and the difficulties of working from home with their young families, they each remain optimistic.

“Begin with positivity and try to make the best of the situation. Students are appreciative of the efforts their instructors are showing,” Canal said.

“The extent of genuine student interest and engagement in their studies has been made plain to see,” Stoodley said.

“We’ve all banded together,” Crane added. “There’s a greater sense of community among chemistry educators across the country now than before.”

A few years from now, we will all look back and have a story to share about loss and loneliness, but also about compassion, ingenuity, and resiliency. If the narrative in March 2020 was surviving pandemic pedagogy, fall 2020 has become a story about thriving during pandemic teaching.

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 past-chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 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.

McCollum, B. (2020, November). Moving Beyond Surviving: Thriving during Pandemic Teaching. CIC News. Originally published at https://www.cheminst.ca

Pandemic Pedagogy (posted March 2020 – Brett McCollum)