Online Course Preparation Q&A

“Online teaching really means re-thinking teaching from the ground up. Every aspect of a traditional course is open for re-imagining.”

With the start of term on September 8th, the UBC History Department will be fully online for the very first time. To prepare the department for this challenge, three graduate students have been working together to support instructors and help ease this transition. 

The support they’ve provided is varied. They have worked together on creating and compiling online teaching resources relevant for the faculty- on assessments, student wellness, specific technologies, and more. The GAAs have also created guides for the faculty, including a curated list of tools relevant for history teaching, and a best practices guide for holding discussions, tutorials, and seminars. They’ve organized webinars for faculty, and provided one-on-one support. 

I spoke with them to learn more about their approach to this unique situation, their experiences working with the department, and the challenges and benefits of online instruction.

Three graduate students.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves?

Jacob Goldowitz:

I’m entering my third year as a PhD student in the History Department. I love all kinds of history, but my specialty is medieval European history in the 9th century. When I’m not reading listicles about how to engage students in online discussions, I’m usually out for a run or walking my dog Hazel.

Lui Xia Lee:

I’m entering my second year as a MA student in the History Department. I come from a journalism background, and my research still relates to journalism as I examine the role of Malay(si)an print media in shaping the legislations that forwarded a national identity centered on Malay pre-eminence in the late-1950s and 1960s. Outside of the history department, I enjoy exploring the outdoors, and I usually take every opportunity to dance, create workout plans for my residence community, or go hiking in the North Shore Mountains.

Ryan Sun:

I’m a second-year PhD student in the History department. My current research investigates the migration of Jewish refugees across the British colonies during the 1930s, and how during WWII, these individuals became an epistemological issue for colonial administrators concerned with the ‘proper treatment’ of European enemy aliens. Outside of academia, I have begrudgingly taken up morning runs and badminton as ways to stay active and to combat the adverse effects of the sedentary graduate lifestyle.

How has the History department responded to your support and resources?

Lui Xia: The department has been really supportive, inquisitive, and responsive to our assistance. I think they know that the shift to online instructing will be tedious and are happy that we are here to provide a helping hand. 

Ryan: The department has been very receptive and welcoming. The shift towards online teaching is a big move for some instructors, but having a GAA available to answer their questions and guide them along the way reduces some of their stress. Many really just want someone to reassure them.

Jacob:  The department has been very grateful for our help and seem very willing to take on the challenge of transitioning to online teaching.

What are the some of the most difficult aspects of online instruction and what advice/guidance/resources have you coordinated to work with these? What has been most challenging about this project? 

Lui Xia: I think the fact that we have little go-off on and fearing that things might backfire is going to be interesting. It’s just a whole period of trial-and-error. There isn’t as many resources available about online teaching that are properly updated. We also have to really be constantly adapting and changing what we suggest because of different technologies skill sets and availability. 

Ryan: I think the most difficult aspect of online teaching and our work as GAAs is the desire to replicate in-person teaching- many instructors wish to keep that ‘feel’. The reality is that it can’t be reproduced easily, and this takes away the benefits that online-focused teaching offers. The challenge comes from persuading instructors to go beyond simply lecture recordings or powerpoint slides, and bring in other tools to create student community, such as the Canvas discussion board or the chat box on Collaborate Ultra and Zoom.

Jacob: Some things that used to be really easy in face-to-face instruction, like getting students into groups to have a discussion, now have a layer of complexity on top of it. Instead of using our voices, we have to learn what features and functionalities we can use instead.

Online teaching really means re-thinking teaching from the ground up. Every aspect of a traditional course is open for re-imagining. It’s hard enough to create a classic lecture experience online, but even harder to really leverage what technology can do to help students learn.

What have been the most rewarding or personally satisfying aspects of this project?

Lui Xia: Definitely being there for instructors to guide them to rethink and relearn our traditional mode of pedagogy. I think this opportunity has made some instructors reconsider the care and time it needs to create a meaningful learning environment for students.

Ryan: Being told by the instructors we are helping that they’re glad you were able to fix their problem or help find a solution is a great feeling.

Jacob: Before the lockdown, I had zero interest in online teaching. Now I see that teaching online, or even blending in-person courses to have an online component, can be very impactful and even improve students’ engagement, the course outcomes, and equity.

How have instructors used your support or resources?

Lui Xia: Instructors have been responsive to the seminars we organized during the summer. They are considerably interested-  they have not only attended the seminars to gauge the suggestions but also queried their suggestions, which provide great exchange of ideas and feedback for improvement.

Ryan: One of the instructors I helped had concerns about uploading lecture recordings. I made a short step-by-step guide for them. Unfortunately, their home internet was not as fast as the connection at UBC, so I helped them with the remaining videos rather than wait hours for one file to be uploaded. 

Jacob: Some really productive time has been spent just talking over what options are available, for designing a course or using technology to implement a core part of the syllabus.

What would you say to students who are concerned about their quality of instruction for the fall?

Lui Xia: We are all struggling- I can only imagine the different range of difficulties and hurdles all of us will have to face. While we can only provide suggestions to instructors, I hope that some instructors will consider these suggestions seriously and will be proactive about dealing with issues that may come up from online teaching. I hope all of us will be more considerate, kind, compassionate, and patient during these trying times. 

Ryan: Your instructors are definitely trying to find ways to make this academic year feel exciting. But don’t be afraid to raise your concerns to your professor or your TAs, as they will value the feedback. That said, it is a two-way street.

Your instructors want you to have an excellent learning experience, but there will be a period of trial and error – of finding what works and what does not, so please have some patience and understanding.

Jacob: From what I’ve seen from the Reddit r/UBC page, students aren’t so concerned about terrible instruction as they are worried about the disappearance of the social time that came with face-to-face instruction. I completely relate. I’d say that UBC’s courses this fall don’t have to stay within the Canvas course page. I hope students make Facebook groups, Reddit threads, Discord channels, and find ways to connect with each other outside the “classroom.”