The COVID-19 emergency has passed. What remains? A new way of teaching and learning, finds new research from the Faculty of Education and Social Work.
In March 2020, schools in BC abruptly pivoted all face-to-face classroom learning to a digital space. Not quite online nor blended learning, this alternate delivery was used for most courses at TRU through 2021.
Dr. Edward Howe, professor and chair of TRU’s School of Education, observed how the pivot from traditional classroom teaching impacted higher education and instruction and changed teachers’ strategies and pedagogies — including his own.
“The pandemic is one of the biggest challenges that teachers have faced in recent years,” Howe says. “When we found ourselves having to pivot at first it was all about dealing with the challenges, but as we got further into the pandemic, I think we began to see some of the silver linings. In my own teaching, I saw it as a potential research opportunity.”
In 2021, he published a paper, Finding Our Way Through a Pandemic: Teaching in Alternate Modes of Delivery, followed by a 2022 book, Teacher Acculturation: Stories of Pathways to Teaching. Using himself as the subject — he took on teaching the Graduate Certificate in Education course EDUC 5990 Research Colloquium in fall 2020 — Howe engaged in a self-study of teaching and teacher education practices.
He asked students for written feedback, submitted using the Moodle forum online at the end of each class as well as at the end of term, and journaled his own reflections. He then engaged a research partner, Dr. Georgann Cope Watson, to jointly review the narrative data.
Their findings show that many teaching strategies work well in both face-to-face classrooms and online classrooms, and what remains critical is the active engagement with synchronous learning. In any class, students need opportunities to engage with the curriculum, collaborate with others and share their thinking to learn effectively. This means tools and pedagogies may have to change.
This research has impacts beyond the pandemic classroom, particularly in masters-level programs; graduate students as a group are the fastest-growing group of people looking for flexible online or hybrid programs. And many tools adopted during alternate delivery, such as MS Teams meetings and a virtual first class, remain in place today. Howe’s conversations with colleagues has found that many instructors are still using Moodle and Google Docs to enrich the learning environment. Other common pedagogies have to be reconsidered to be effective.
“I tried to do some of these very interactive, engaging lessons online and found they fell short,” Howe says. “For example, I like to get students working in groups with felt pens, poster papers and whiteboards. When you try to do them digitally, such as on Padlet, they don’t work as well (although they do offer some advantages; while posters are removed after class, work can remain up in the digital space). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say a lot of people feel that some of these pedagogies are a poor substitute for being able to work face-to-face with a piece of paper.”
In contrast, Howe found some of the digital spaces enriched the face-to-face discussions. Rather than containing a poster activity to the classroom, for example, he could pose a question in Moodle or Teams. Students commented and discussed in advance of the class and considered their response before raising their hands in class — and that extra time can be particularly beneficial to students who are reluctant to speak in front of a large group.
“Then when they come to class they’ve had some pre-conversations that help move the conversation to another level,” Howe says. “One of the success stories for me was that we know we can take some of our strategies and tools and modify them to use them effectively in another way. The result is we have an improvement in our student learning, in the classroom and online.”