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In my opinion

What teaching issues we need to think about as we transition back to in-person learning

Getting students back to pre-COVID-19 standards will be a delicate act.

BY ANDIE BURAZIN | JUL 19 2021

Since March of last year, postsecondary educators have significantly modified course delivery, rethought student assessments, found new ways to create a sense of community and offered new forms of accessibility for students, among other things.

Students, meanwhile, had to invest considerable energy in adjusting to online education: managing an unfamiliar set of tasks compared to in-class; learning solely through a screen and written material; connecting with and supporting peers virtually; changing the way they prepare for assessments; and for some international students, even re-programming their biological clocks to attend classes.

Both educators and students had one goal in common: figuring out how to balance online education with their personal lives, all while dealing with the physical and psychological toll of a public health emergency.

Many instructors scaled back course material and reduced the level of difficulty, feeling that students were overwhelmed. Extra supporting material was created to help students fill gaps in their background knowledge and follow courses more easily. Instructors provided more support and made themselves more accessible through email, discussion forums, or by staying longer after class to answer questions. Compassion helped both instructors and students make it through.

Avoiding another rocky transition

Now as we wait for the disruption from COVID-19 to ease, new questions arise. Will decisions to ramp up course difficulty again pose problems for students as they carry on their postsecondary studies? How will they readjust to on-campus learning? Will the “extras” that many faculty have extended to students during the pandemic become the new standard they will expect of us?

To avoid another rocky transition, as we move back to some sense of normalcy, it is time to think about what we want teaching to look like after the pandemic, and how we will get there.

The shift to remote learning hasn’t been all bad. On the contrary, it has brought to the fore new and refreshing perspectives on course delivery. Going forward, some instructors might continue to record their classes or create videos so that students can use them to learn on their own time, wherever they are, instead of coming to campus. Other instructors might decide to keep some of their assessments online. Certain educational technologies will surely remain, including online platforms such as Crowdmark and Gradescope for assessments, and institutional learning management systems. Discussion forums such as Piazza, and the sense of community and collaboration they foster online, are here to stay.

New challenges

However, instructors and students will likely face new challenges in the post-COVID-19 era.

One is to figure out exactly what students have learned during the pandemic and modify courses to ensure they can successfully complete their postsecondary programs. The gaps in their knowledge will be wider. The “COVID-19 curriculum” they received may have been light on content, and expectations may have been unclear. Getting students back to pre-COVID-19 standards will be a delicate act.

Students will have to learn, or re-learn, how to prepare for and write in-person assessments. Although access to textbooks and other resources has been quite common during the past year, having such aids during a supervised assessment might not be the “new normal” for many pedagogical reasons. Students will need to recalibrate their learning strategies by, for instance, memorizing facts or formulas.

Course instructors may have to brace themselves for new anxieties and further demands for accommodations as students navigate this transition. It’s time to anticipate and prepare for such challenges, as instructors and students work toward returning to campus safely.

Andie Burazin is an assistant professor, teaching stream at the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy & Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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