Online Learning Can Help Students. But Are Profs Prepared For It?

This story is part of Learning Curve, a HuffPost Canada series that explores the challenges and opportunities for students, faculty and post-secondary institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 


From behind a computer screen, Zachary Lacroix watches his teaching assistant point to body parts on a photo of a cadaver. 

Normally for this human anatomy class, he’d be in a lab at the University of Calgary, working with a cadaver or model of the human body. But these are not normal times. His professor provided names of computer programs that students can use to work on a model body, to stand in for the “lab” part of the course, but most cost money so many students rely on the virtual demonstrations.

Lacroix doesn’t mind the online learning so far. He has dyslexia, and said the open-book exam in one course and repetition have made it easier for him to learn. He’s also a full-time long track athlete, so he likes the flexibility of asynchronous online classes that he can watch at any time. 

“I feel like even though this is not the best, it’s what the best is for this moment,” the second-year student in leadership in pedagogy and coaching told HuffPost Canada.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian colleges and universities faced a sudden challenge: Pivot to remote teaching. Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., was the first to announce all of its classes would be online, on March 10. Others across the country quickly followed. 

That abrupt shift was an emergency response, said Stella Lee, the director of Paradox Learning Inc. who works primarily in e-learning consulting. Most institutions lacked the support or infrastructure to shift to online classes so quickly, she said. Some learning management systems — students know them as sites like Blackboard, Brightspace or D2L — have a limit to how much content they can support. If schools didn’t increase their server capacity, the sudden onslaught of professors posting long videos could have crashed their systems.

Much of what happened from March onward was professors trying their best to mimic a classroom environment online. Most lectures, if professors didn’t outright cancel them, took place at the same time as they did before, typically with a video component on Zoom or another platform.

September could — and should — be different, Lee said. True online learning — not the rushed response from March — should account for what makes the medium unique compared to the traditional classroom experience. Lee compared it to the advent of TV: at first, programs copied what people were used to from radio, without focusing on what made TV unique. 

At its best, online learning is flexible and adapts to students’ varying needs, Lee said. Professors can support ESL students by adding captions to video content, or use personalized AI technology that gives students more frequent practice if they’re doing well or that slows lessons down if students are struggling. Virtual reality can also offer students a chance to explore outside of the traditional classroom. 

But making the shift to these unique practices requires time, effort and money. Redoing courses to be effective online is putting an additional strain on faculty who will likely have larger class sizes due to hiring freezes, and support for transitioning to online learning varies across institutions. Whether online learning in September will be a positive experience for students is still uncertain — and could vary drastically from class to class, professor to professor and student to student.


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Profs may not think they need to change

Heather Kanuka is a professor at the University of Alberta’s faculty of education. She said while the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated problems that students face in the classroom, there has been some “appalling” and ineffective instruction in higher-education classrooms dating back decades. 

She pointed to her own research that came to the same conclusion as U.S.-based research from over 40 years ago: that a majority of professors rate themselves as good teachers, and receive positive feedback from students on their semesterly evaluations. 

“What’s the incentive to change?” Kanuka asked. “I’ve done an awful lot of thinking about this, and, to be quite frank, I don’t think that there’s really a lot of incentive.”

Professors who are writing a research paper and teaching a larger class because budget cuts mean the school offers fewer sections may prioritize these things over attending workshops for online teaching. “Something’s gotta give,” Kanuka said. That might mean not going to the workshops, or taking steps like choosing to make exams multiple choice because it’s far easier to grade than giving feedback on 40 essays. 

Because she’s not convinced all professors will change their teaching, she believes students need to invest time in their own learning — and universities need to support students directly. “I think resources and time are better spent helping students to learn under various conditions,” she said. One example could be a university having a learning centre for students, instead of just a teaching centre for professors, to provide strategies and facilitate activities to enhance learning. 

With online learning, it’s important for students to be self-directed and self-regulated learners, Kanuka said. That means not getting easily distracted, keeping up with the timeline of courses and studying according to the format of the exam (for example, studying differently for a multiple-choice exam that requires surface-level recall, versus an essay-based exam that requires forming an argument).

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The University of Alberta is launching an eLearning package to introduce students to the remote learning environment, Helen Vallianatos, the office’s associate dean of students, said in an email. 

Students can also take advantage of one-on-one academic support workshops for either in-person or remote learning, Vallianatos said.

Professors adopting to virtual classrooms

A key concern with online learning is that not all students have access to a laptop or phone, or strong internet connection. With most libraries and coffee shops closed, there aren’t many other places to work.  

Carrie Demmans Epp, an assistant professor in computing science at the University of Alberta, tried to be extra accommodating to students when the spring semester moved online.

For an exam in the human-computer interaction course she taught in the spring semester, which otherwise would have been written on paper and in-person, she gave students two practice tests so they could become familiar with the online learning environment. She offered multiple ways of submitting the exam: uploading it to Google Drive, emailing it to her, or writing the exam on paper and taking photos of their papers to send to her.

The university has a central service that supports online learning — it used to be per faculty but some faculties got rid of theirs in budget cuts in the last year — that has been helping other professors adapt, Demmans Epp said. But she also worries that the professors who need the support for online teaching most might not be able to access or connect to webinars about it if they’re not technologically savvy. 

John Nychka, vice-provost of learning initiatives at the University of Alberta, said there’s been a good uptake of webinars, podcasts, online sessions and other online content to help instructors transition to remote teaching. The university is also offering one-on-one consultations through the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and individual faculties and departments are offering their own support. 

“I’ve seen huge increases in consumption. People are really looking for it — our instructional staff members, and our contract professors,” Nychka told HuffPost. “Everybody is trying to retool, rescale and get training.”

Participation in the webinars is optional and all of the resources are available to contract faculty as well as tenured professors, he said. 

Nychka said the university knows that its biggest efforts right now need to be providing support and assisting professors, adding it’s been “heartening” to see the uptake from instructors in preparing to invest in students’ education. 

Professors may use an expense account to purchase equipment needed for online teaching, though additional access to borrowing or using equipment varies by faculty, a University of Alberta spokesperson said. When it’s safe, instructors will also be able to book a classroom to use existing equipment to prepare course materials.

Technical difficulties affect student learning 

Rasleen Gandhi will finish her computer science degree at Dalhousie University after the fall semester. She said in one of her online courses, her prof struggled to administer the midterm and final exam online.

In March, the sudden transition to online learning was made more challenging because of the labs-based computer science courses where students, in normal times, could show TAs their coding and receive instant feedback, she said. One professor just uploaded weekly lectures, and students could only ask questions in one weekly virtual office hour session.

Virtual office hours and group assignments also present challenges, like when a student has a hard time explaining an issue to a prof when the camera was off and they can’t see their face, or not being able to physically show a group member their work, she said. 

But Gandhi has also seen the other side of things, when online learning does work. One of her professors held three Zoom lectures a week, which allowed students to ask lots of questions. He also gave extensions on assignments to help students with their workload. 

As well, in the spring semester the computer science faculty helped the learning centre transition to using Discord, an online app with a chatroom function, to help students. Students could use the screen-sharing feature to see their assignments or talk on the phone to get help, and Gandhi said that based on feedback she heard the program was “really successful” and well-liked by students. 

She said she thinks her professors are doing their best to teach online, but that many aren’t used to teaching without a whiteboard or blackboard. Their webcams show blurry images, and the video streams are interrupted by noises from their houses. “It’s been hard for them [too],” she said.

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