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Faculty of Information prepares for remote fall term

Submitted on Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Professor Dan Ryan (standing at left) goes table to table in a UXD class. He and two co-op students are working to help instructors teach online no matter what their teaching style.

As the Faculty of Information prepares for a fall term that will see all classes delivered remotely, the students and professors leading the way have a message for everyone involved – don’t expect fall classes to look much like the last three weeks of the winter term when everything moved online almost overnight.

Using summer instructors as research fodder and working closely but remotely with instructors preparing for the coming academic year, three Master of Information co-op students hired by the Faculty, are becoming experts in UofT’s online learning tools so that their professors don’t have to. Their supervisor, Professor Dan Ryan, emphasized that the mantra is “adapt the technological tool to what the teacher wants to do as opposed to the dominant paradigm of telling the teacher to adapt their practice to the educational technology.”

“If Professor So-and-so likes to strut their way across the stage, let’s make that work,” says Ryan, who teaches User Centered Design. “If someone else is good at going from table to table, then let’s make that work.”

One of the questions faced by both professors and students as the fall term approached was whether to opt for so-called synchronous or asynchronous classes. Co-op student Maia Chapman, who is in the User Experience Design concentration, says those are “two really complicated words” to describe what are essentially live and prerecorded lectures. She’s not surprised that people are confused by the wording as well as the concept.

Virtual backgrounds can be deceiving. Co-op student Savanna Li (left) is working from Toronto while Maia Chapman (inset) is in Calgary. Nathasha Odamtten (right), who just recently joined the team, is also in Toronto, which isn’t quite as futuristic as her urban background scene.

For instructors, weighing the pros and cons of live versus prerecorded lectures has been especially challenging without precedents to follow, says Chapman. However, during the current summer session, there’s one instructor who took the plunge and recorded all their lectures, and the team has learned a lot from that.

Chapman herself has been doing her co-op job remotely after returning abruptly to her hometown of Calgary when students were told to leave graduate housing in March. “It was an odd transition, living at home with 7 a.m. lectures,” she says. “It was hard to stay focused and get things done. It was a lot to deal with.” As a result, she is especially interested in improving ways to engage with fellow students during the coming fall term when she will remain in Calgary.

Chapman and Savanna Li, a Knowledge and Information Management (KMIM) student based in Toronto, were originally hired to assist the summer instructors, but their contracts didn’t start until after courses had begun so they couldn’t help with course preparations. Despite this restriction, they proved themselves adept at mastering Quercus and Blackboard, identifying instructors’ various teaching styles, and troubleshooting for students. As a result, their contracts have been extended so that they can work with instructors preparing well in advance for the fall and winter terms. A third student, Nathasha Odamtten, who’s also in the KMIM concentration, just joined the team.

Li, who has taken and enjoyed asynchronous online courses in the past, says she empathized with professors who had to move quickly from in-person teaching to remote delivery due to the pandemic. She says they didn’t have the time to learn how to facilitate the kind of online conversations and idea-sharing that build the sense of community she felt in courses designed to be delivered online.

For Li, the first summer session served as a kind of covert “user research practice” with instructors as subjects. She connected with them to learn about their approaches to remote teaching and identify quick and easy ways to support them. This could include everything from making a video stop playing to finding a bot to complete a task. “Our goal is to optimize their teaching not to make them learn about Quercus,” she explained.

Enrolled in a summer course herself, Li also pitched her ideas on how to organize course content on Quercus in a more efficient way to her professor. “I took it as a risk and also for granted,” she said of her dual role as student and consultant. As it turned out, her instructor was more than happy with the suggestions.

Maia Chapman wants to do as much as possible to enable student engagement in the coming term including by taking advantage of all the accessibility features online learning offers.

Chapman says a lot of instructors worry about being able to hold students’ attention with the transition to remote delivery while she hears from students that they are concerned about missing out things like hallway chats and meet-ups in the Inforum.

“I moved to Toronto not knowing anyone and was so grateful for the people I met in my classes and on campus,” she said. As a result, she’s keen to explore student-on-student interaction and “how we can be more engaging and get the full experience of the classroom.”

Another key task for Chapman is ensuring accessibility, which has turned out to be different from what she expected. Quercus has good accessibility features so instead of actively having to change things to make them more accessible, Chapman’s role has been to let instructors know about the features and how to use them. “It’s not that hard to incorporate accessibility if you do it right from the beginning,” she says.

“A lot of accessibility guidelines are quite similar to design guidelines,” she explains, adding that the proper use of header and body text makes things work better from both an accessibility and design perspective. What’s more, features like closed captioning for the hearing impaired have turned out to be helpful to students in busy homes, who can’t always a find a quiet place to attend remote courses.

While much of the discussion around the impact of Covid-19 has centered on the negative impacts, Ryan points out that it hasn’t been all bad. “If we’re honest, there were probably people who had a better experience because of what happened, people who had a worse experience and people for whom it was a wash.” There were also the funny moments, he says, many of which are memorialized in an online Bingo card posted to Instagram by the Master of Information Student Council.

For Ryan, who’s long been interested in the digital tools being developed for online learning, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to delve deeper. As much as he values the energy and social aspects of traditional university education, he also believes that universities now learning how to deliver a quality remote-learning experience should consider making it permanent for people who don’t have the time or circumstances to attend in-person classes.

“Suppose we discover there are people who want a U of T MI degree, who say, ‘I’m smart, I’m good, you’ll be proud of me and I would love to pay you tuition, but I cannot come to Toronto to study,’” says Ryan. He thinks universities could maximally fulfill their educational missions by finding the right mix of traditional learning methods and remote courses that take advantage of the most interesting new technologies. But he acknowledges that this can be hard given to do that most universities don’t have R&D departments for development of new learning tools and products while they do have certain entrenched interests that aren’t always eager to embrace innovation.

“A lot of us have known, from before Covid ever showed up, that higher education is undergoing some pretty radical changes,” he says. “The demand for new tools will probably give rise to some positively transformative innovations. I’ll predict that our experiences during the pandemic will hasten some changes and attenuate others as we see advantages and disadvantages of digitally mediated education play out.”