Education prof receives Minister’s Award of Excellence

Nicola Simmons, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, has been recognized with the Minister of Colleges and Universities’ Award of Excellence for her dedication to students and the broader post-secondary education sector throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simmons (BEd ’02, MEd ’04, PhD ’07), who pursued her entire academic career at Brock, was astonished to find out she had been nominated by a colleague and won the award.

“It’s always lovely to know that your peers value what you’re doing,” said Simmons.

As classes moved online because of the pandemic, Simmons and Nicholas Contant, Educational Technologist in the Faculty of Education, accelerated the launch of an online teaching resources website, an existing project undertaken by the Faculty of Education’s Online Teaching Group.

The group, which Simmons initiated, came together in the summer of 2019 as a peer-facilitated problem-solving team.

“We started it really as a way of sharing great practices as well as peoples’ concerns so that we could learn from each other,” said Simmons. “When people are nervous about doing something, they might not be their best creative selves, and if we could be a support group for each other, we would probably get better teaching out of it.”

The group received funding from the Dean of the Faculty of Education to build a website to collect resources and best practices for faculty and students. Rather than recreating content available elsewhere, the group curated ideas and strategies for the convenience of faculty, instructors and students. In addition, there are personal entries of lessons learned. The site includes faculty and grad student contributions as well as external resources.

Simmons is seeing the impact of the site already, with educators reaching out to her with feedback and questions from the Brock community and beyond. The Online Teaching Group continues to meet and has added new resources to the site since its launch.

“It’s a living resource,” said Simmons of the site. “We will keep contributing to it as things come out.”

Along with working on the launch of the Online Teaching Website, Simmons has provided one-on-one consultations with faculty around online teaching throughout the pandemic.

Simmons is no stranger to working with educators transitioning to online teaching or developing her own online courses. She has been teaching online for about 20 years and focused her master’s thesis research on creating online learning communities. She began teaching at Brock as a facilitator for the Adult Education program, which she graduated from in 2002 and included online sessions in courses to help students gain experience with online learning as future educators.

Based on her experience, Simmons finds that the increased depth of engagement and more balanced class discussion in online courses shape students’ experience of learning. The ability to interact through forum posts, for example, can be more comfortable for students who may be insecure about public speaking or who are working with English as a subsequent language.

“I hear from students that the extra bells and whistles don’t matter,” said Simmons. “It’s about a deep level of conversation.”

Simmons has won several other awards, including sweeping categories in 2016 with a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, an inaugural national Distinguished Educational Development Career Award, Brock’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the Faculty of Education’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 2017, Brock’s inaugural Open Access Award. She currently holds a Chancellor’s Chair in Teaching Excellence (2018-2021).

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