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A sea change in how we teach and learn

A sea change in how we teach and learn

By John Lorinc

Dalhousie Faculty Association president David Westwood describes it as the three phases of online teaching — a half-joking reference to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief.

First, in March 2020, came frustration, when countless instructors found themselves forced to become overnight experts at teaching on platforms like Zoom. The second phase was akin to, well, bargaining: instructors learned how they could take advantage of this new medium, and even improve the learning experience. 

The final phase, however, remains a work-in-progress as instructors, academic staff associations and administrations grapple with formalizing the architecture of what is a sea-change in the way that teachers teach. As Westwood, a professor of kinesiology, puts it, “What does teaching even mean?” 

A handful of Canadian institutions and academic staff associations have confronted this thorny problem during recent collective bargaining talks. The issue of formalizing contract language around online teaching has taken on renewed urgency as so many associations return to the bargaining table.

In some ways, this issue isn't uncharted territory. Distance learning courses and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) have been around for years. In both cases, academic staff associations negotiated language about this kind of course delivery into collective agreements. 

The contract issues with pandemic teaching and the use of online platforms are somewhat different, not least because everyone had to make that shift in the spring of 2020. This raised questions about the evolution of student accommodation requests during the pandemic, pressure from administrators to deliver in-person experiences to students, and student expectations about what constitutes a course. Instructors, in turn, have raised concerns about the protection of online course materials, flexibility and the practice of hybrid course delivery. 

What's more, now that online teaching is commonplace, even with universities and colleges back to in-person classes, many academic staff associations have seen the emergence of sharp splits in opinion among their members: “We had some members say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can't wait to get back in the classroom. I never want to teach online again,’” says Orvie Dingwall, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association. “We had other members say, ‘oh my gosh, this has opened up so many opportunities for me as an instructor. I never want to be in the in-person classroom again.’ And lots of people in between.” 

Quite apart from the views of individual instructors, Dingwall, an associate librarian, says the issues around online teaching — control of intellectual property, choice of mode, etc. — “became a big bargaining issue. There was a loud-and-clear message from our members that with any changes to future design of the classes, instructors had a say as to who was going to teach it and also the collegial process of protecting IP, and who gets to decide whether that course can be taught in person or virtual.”

These issues were front and centre when UMFA went on strike in late 2021. One of the outcomes, Dingwall says, is that U of M and the academic staff association set up a joint committee focused on technology, teaching and learning, that will explore the best approach. 

But with the resumption of fully in-person classes in the fall of 2022, instructors found themselves facing pressure to offer hybrid courses, with cameras in classrooms. “Everyone is saying, please don't have me in the classroom and then just put a camera on me and expect to teach simultaneously to students who are virtual and students who are in person,” Dingwall says. “That's not good design and our classrooms and lecture theatres aren't equipped to do that.”

The same concern surfaced during bargaining in 2021 at Concordia University of Edmonton, and focused on whether the administration should be able to impose online teaching requirements. The core issue, says Glynis Price, president of the academic staff association, “was pretty straightforward.” The decision should be left up to the instructor. Indeed, the new collective agreement, ratified in January 2022, has made that right explicit. 

At Dalhousie, the story played out differently, at least in part because the university has long promoted the student residential experience. After the lockdown, the academic staff association asked a labour arbitrator to rule on whether the university could unilaterally order all teaching to be shifted online. The association lost — the arbitrator found that a public health emergency overrode the consent language in the contract — but frictions about online teaching surfaced during contract negotiations and a strike vote last December.

“We didn't have any language about online teaching,” says Westwood. “We were starting from ground zero.”     

Much of the negotiations centred on workload. “The particular item we did come to the table with was some recognition of the extra workload that comes with not only teaching online, but really the shift,” he says. “Had you been expected or planning for in-person or some traditional mode and [then] you're told you had to change? How is that recognized in terms of both compensation or release from other duties?” 

The academic staff association pushed Dalhousie to provide a stipend for additional work and negotiated a new contract with explicit provisions about online workload. It specifies that administrators must make “reasonable efforts” to let faculty know well in advance about work assignments for the coming academic year, including online delivery. The contract also enumerates the forms of compensation for work related to online teaching assignments, including adding instructional support or stipends. “We saw that as a win,” says Westwood. 

He also points to an important shift in the discourse around online teaching. At the beginning of the pandemic, many instructors hated it. But when the university began pushing hard for a resumption of in-person classes, many faculty had not only learned how to teach remotely but had also improved the pedagogical experience. For many professors, the boundaries between in-person and online have become blurred as they shift between modes as their pedagogy demands. “There's some reckoning to be done about definitions,” Westwood adds. “What should we tell students when they sign up for a particular class?”

There are unresolved questions around the shifting expectations for accommodation requests from students and instructors. The move to remote learning during the pandemic benefited students and instructors with accessibility issues, and thus raised expectations of what universities and colleges should be providing to both constituencies. “For our members with physical disabilities, or visual or hearing or any number of disabilities, there's been some real opportunities for inclusion when [teaching] went to online,” says Dingwall.

Others wonder what's being sacrificed in the era of online course delivery. Queen's University philosophy professor David Bakhurst has written about the pedagogical implications of online teaching, and how it can undermine the learning experience. “It's very difficult to foster a kind of communal environment,” he says. “You can't tell quite whether people are getting it or whether they're bored.” 

Yet he also acknowledges the platforms provided solutions that sometimes don’t work so well in the physical classroom, for example, virtual break-out rooms and students benefitting from the option of enrolling in a combination of online and in-person courses. “I know students who like to mix it up because it enables them to manage their time better.”

The pros and cons of online teaching, however, may soon be yesterday's news, given the emergence of ChatGPT. “That is like all my colleagues are talking about,” Westwood says. “They've almost forgotten about COVID and say, ‘Oh, who cares? I got a bigger problem. I don't know how to evaluate students anymore.' The future is very uncertain about what's going to happen in six months, let alone five years from now.”

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