For students in Charles Conteh’s second-year public policy course at Brock University, online learning means more access to their professor and an engaging, active digital classroom environment.
Conteh, an Associate Professor of Political Science who is also Director of Brock’s Niagara Community Observatory, has been teaching at the University for 12 years. But over the past five, he has increasingly used online learning to further engage his public policy students.
“There are students who initially express concern asking if they’re going to get as much from the online class as being in the classroom, but my students and I have found this class just as engaging as a brick-and-mortar environment,” said Conteh. “Make no mistake, online learning is not passive learning. You are actively thinking through the material.”
Like Conteh’s Political Science students, the vast majority of Brock undergrads will be learning in an online environment when the Fall Term starts on Wednesday, Sept. 9. Only a small number of classes will be held on campus as Brock continues to prioritize the health, safety and well-being of its students, faculty and staff while also following public health guidelines around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lynn Wells, Brock’s Provost and Vice-President, Academic, said students’ engagement this Fall will be vastly different to what they experienced in March, when the pandemic abruptly ended in-person classes and faculty members had 10 days to transition to a fully online environment.
“In March, when the world changed on us so suddenly, faculty members had to move very quickly to an online environment,” she said. “That really wasn’t ideal, but it was a necessity.”
In the five months since then, countless hours have been spent collaborating and transforming courses.
“Brock has done a phenomenal job of preparing for fall,” Wells said. “There’s a really strong sense of engagement on the academic side, but also on the administrative side to ensure the institution will be safe for the small numbers of students who will be on campus and to make sure the technology is in place to ensure students in online classes will be successful.”
She said that meant not simply taking what had been in-person classes and uploading presentation slides to Sakai, Brock’s online teaching and learning platform, “but actually transforming their classes so they’re engaging in an online environment.”
“With some time over the summer, you’ve had experts in the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation helping instructors with more interactive elements, more videos and other resources being used to make those classes truly engaging.”
For Conteh, that engagement starts immediately when he uses videos to explain the structure, timelines and expectations for the course.
“At the start of the term, students are more engaged and interested, so I leverage that attention and curiosity and get them fired up for the course by explaining the five or six key things they need to know,” he said.
Conteh uses an asynchronous course schedule where students don’t have to login to view lessons at the same time as when he is on the platform.
“Given the challenges of technology and logistics of being at home, I believe the more flexibility you give students, the better,” he said. “I want to provide students the space they need, but you have to establish very clear timelines for assignments and communicate that.”
Communication, he said, is key.
“In the in-person model, you’re going to class every week and you’re very present to remind students what they need to do,” he said. “You don’t have that in an online course, so I compensate for that by having set days that I send out reminders of due dates and provide updates on how the course is progressing.”
Conteh said he finds seminars to be more engaging in an online environment because they allow everyone to have an equal voice.
“In a brick-and-mortar environment, some students can sit there for an hour and not say a word. But online, they have to actively answer questions, respond to others and be engaged.” he said.
Wells said she wants students to know that while the 2020-21 academic year might look different than expected, it’s just as important as the rest of their post-secondary education.
“Yes, delivery will be different out of necessity, because we have to safeguard people’s health and safety,” she said, “but we’re committed to delivering a high-quality education. We’re working hard to make sure the learning environment will be very good and the student experience will be delivered at a high level.”