Online school versus classroom community
As of March 2020, students at St. Thomas University opened their laptops to listen to pre-recorded lectures, present in their kitchen, and join the class through Microsoft Teams.
Now that 65% of STU’s classes are back in person this year, students and teachers have the opportunity to rethink their year and a half of school online.
“I will never forget it,” said Andrew Moore, who has taught ledgers at STU since 2008.
In the summer of 2020, teachers started modifying their curriculum. They were asked a number of questions.
How can you reproduce a class discussion with a discussion message? Will the students feel disconnected? Should the courses be organized asynchronously or synchronously? What about technical difficulties?
âDr. Cornell and I were on the phone once a week for a couple of hours trying to think of all the different things that could go wrong,â Moore said.
Moore said one of the easiest ways to go online is to turn the classroom into a type of independent study, where students work at their own pace.
Intent on preserving the community of the class, Moore said his excellent book colleagues Christine Cornell, now deceased, and Matt Dinan supported synchronous learning.
In the end, the great books program opted for synchronous courses. This meant that the students were all logging into Teams every week to discuss the texts they were reading in real time. Moore said there were some constraints, but heard from students that it was helpful to have Teams as a home base.
âIt kept a certain normalcy of being able to meet and talk about the books,â Moore said.
While the teachers were separated from their students, they were also separated from each other. Moore said that before the pandemic he used to talk casually to teachers in the room, asking them what teaching techniques they were trying and how they were working.
The teachers, literally on their own, have had a desperate time. To help, Moore made a YouTube video showing how he approached online education.
This was part of a series of YouTube videos that Moore is making under the name Great Books Prof. He said doing video conferences was hard work, but in some ways he found them fun.
Still making videos today he has over 500 subscribers and over 50 videos.
âSome things like that I was forced to think about how to do,â Moore said. “I think it could be useful and could be beneficial down the road.”
Even though students are back in class this fall, many of Moore’s courses take the form of a hybrid model. Some of his students cannot be in Canada or want to participate remotely. He said the appeal of a hybrid model lies in its flexibility and affordability.
For third-year student Alex Hodson, online school is here to stay. Four of its five courses are online this semester.
Hodson said there is more understanding and fewer technical issues as professors have more experience with online teaching this year compared to last year.
âIt comes with its challenges,â Hodson said. “But at the same time, there are advantages.”
Cutting the route was a welcome change. His online classes are all asynchronous, which means Hodson can create his own schedule.
She said that for students with busy schedules because of work or sports, it helps to have that flexibility. Hodson is on the rugby team and trains in person once a week.
âI miss the face-to-face connection with the professor,â Hodson said. âAs much as they do Zoom meetings if you will, it’s not really the same thing. “
What she misses the most is meeting new people in her classes.
“In [a] perfect world, I think I’d like to do a mix of the two, âHodson said.