Friday, August 7, 2020

Lessons Learned in Online Summer School

 This May & June I taught three summer session courses: Intro to Cultural Anthropology [ANTH 100, 120 students], Contemporary First Nations Issues Canada [ANTH 329, 145 students], and Ethnographic Film Methods [ANTH 478, 18 students].  Each course had its own unique attributes and requirements.

I used the UBC provided learning management system (Canvas) for all assignments, course readings, discussion forums,  and course communication. For the two large enrolment classes (ANTH 100 7 329) I used collaborate ultra (through the canvas interface) for synchronous lectures and to record these sessions for students to view later. Throughout the course 40-60% of the students participated live. For the small project-based course (ANTH 478) I used zoom for lectures and discussions. I recorded audio from those sessions and made them available for students to review later at their leisure.

These courses were scheduled in the fall of 2019 long before we had any inkling of the coming pandemic and thus were originally planned as face to face in person courses. ANTH 100 and 478 enrolled at the levels anticipated. However, ANTH 329 jumped in enrolment from a planned 50 to 145. Many students explained that they enrolled as a direct result of the pandemic.  

As the course started I polled students on their learning needs and set up to determine if there were structural or technical adjustments that I could make to adapt the learning environment better. Mid-way through the course I ran a 'check-in' survey via google forms to learn how students were doing - not simply with the course, but in their lives (n=111/285). 

Global distribution of students.

I learned that my students were spread all across the globe. They covered almost every time zone and region of the world. This underscores the importance of providing asynchronous learning opportunities, not making live attendance a requirement, and considering scheduled live sessions at non-standard times.

I also learned that a good proportion of students do not have a dedicated home work space or even dedicated computer. One student talked about how they had had to move home but there was so much going on around their natal home that they weren't really able to study or work effectively. When it became apparent that they were going to be able to effectively complete the course were were able, with the help of Arts Advising, arrange a concessionary withdrawal.

Four big obstacles students noted were: finding motivation in the new learning environment, technical glitches, lack of social interaction, and social anxieties related to pandemic work, and family.  Some of these issues are beyond the scope of an instructor's ability to mitigate. We are all sharing in the increased social anxieties for example. But we can, I think at least be honest and direct about what we are doing and what we can do. 

The things that students felt worked included the following:

  • Reducing lecture/online times and supplementing with resources such as videos and podcasts.
  • Roundtable Q&A (with teaching assistants and instructor) after each lecture.
  • Flexible deadlines permitting a hybrid do at your own pace model.
  • Regular short assignments marked on a completion basis.
  • Blended synchronous/asynchronous with sessions recorded.
  • Students appreciated mid-term check-in that asked them how they were doing overall (not just about the course).
Some general observations: 
  • First year students were the least tolerant of learning environment issues, more critical of delivery/teaching techniques than more senior students.  I have no clue as to why this might be, but also have the similar situation with in person teaching. I suspect the adjustment from high school to university is part of it and going online as we did would likely accentuate these issues.
  • There was a high degree of social anxiety across all year levels.
  • In classes with teaching assistants it becomes even more important than usual to ensure that TA's are on the same page as instructor with respect to marking/assessments and intellectual orientation of the course. A certain amount of dissonance is useful, but the online learning environment requires a degree of clarity and scripting that can sometimes be skipped in person. 
  • Important to acknowledge the unusual context and to be honest about what one can do and is doing to provide a structured learning environment.
I would say that I enjoyed this experience doing a full load of courses online during the summer term. But I would be less than honest if I said I would love doing online teaching for ever. I missed the chance to be there in person with the students.  There is a lot more that is possible face to face. However, I have also picked up instructional techniques and approaches that I intend to continue irrespective of whether I am teaching online or in person.  Finding ways to shift my contact hours with students to being more interactive and participatory is one thing this experience has provided an opportunity to reflect upon. I do this already, but now I have some hard skills to make it even more effective.


Formal SEoT – end of term. Selected comments related to pandemic learning.

ANTH 100  n=13/122.  3/19 comments specifically discuss COVID-19 teaching.


With the coronavirus, Dr. Menzies did a great job teaching the course on Collaborate Ultra and the examinations were able to be taken any time within a 24 hour period really helped since not everyone is currently living in Vancouver.


I found that the recorded lectures were a big help as I was living outside the Vancouver time zone and the weekly assignments helped keep me on track with my studies. Additionally, I loved the relevance of this course to current events happening in the world right now. I think it was an essential asset to my understanding of systems of inequality and I'm grateful for this opportunity to learn.


This is the kind of course where in–person discussion and the first year course tutorials are valuable. Hard to find alternatives for large, online course format.


ANTH 329 n=23/145.  5/17 comments specifically discuss COVID-19 teaching.

I thought it was very generous that Prof. Menzies had a suggested due date for assignments and then a final due date and there was no penalty for missing the suggested date. It was really helpful to have the buffer.


Professor Menzies taught with patience and clarity. The chat feature on Collaborate Ultra allowed students to ask questions and I appreciated that he took the time to address them within the class period. If a question was unclear, he would wait and allow students to clarify their ideas so that he could address their questions fully. He also presented unique topics in a way in which people of all different levels of knowledge on First Nations issues could still learn something new. His personal background brought insights into the material and topics, especially the topics of fisheries and food production. Given the circumstances of the class being moved online, he is a very compassionate teacher who seems to genuinely care about his student's understanding and well–being. Though I never used the extended submission windows for assignments, I wish other professors would be as understanding as Professor Menzies and use this format (of a due date and a final submission date), as it gives students flexibility in times of uncertainty. His teaching style is effective yet understanding and I really enjoyed this class.


Instructor was exceptionally knowledgeable, presenting an engaging, thought–provoking and important course. Current events were part of the course, news items, films, excellent readings and essays to read. Every aspect of the instructors teaching style, content shared, information and assignments was excellent. Enjoyed the assignments, challenged me to think critically. Learnt important issues regarding First Nations in Canada and provincially, as well as internationally. I looked forward to every class, every reading, every assignment, a new tool to learn. Inspired by instructor. Encouraged creativity, independent thinking, knowledge and conscience. Provided exceptional awareness. The TA's were both a great asset. TA and Instructor always available. Instructor created a 'check in' questionnaire to see how each student was doing mid–way through course, not simply academically, but on a caring and concerned level. respectful, relevant, informed, a gifted instructor. The course was valuable and gave much more than I anticipated. On–line resources were excellent as was the instruction, despite limitations from Covid–19 and the instructors need to adapt the intense and detailed course from an in–class format to an on–line format in a short amount of time. Thoughtful, progressive, contemporary teaching style. Excellent communicator, listener, and instructor.


First off, I would just like to say thank you. You were one of the only professors who continuously checked in with us to ensure that we were managing well during the incredibly stressful pandemic. You made the course extremely accessible and that took a lot of stress away. Not only that, but you created such an interesting and engaging course, despite the challenges of being online. I really enjoyed the course and found a lot of my own views and understanding on the issues facing Indigenous peoples have expanded and developed more. I am leaving the course with a much more in depth view of the systems in place that continue to limit Indigenous peoples––and as a result, can be a better ally. I really appreciate that you provided so many extra, optional readings and materials for us to look at on the wide range of topics. Being able to further research and read the commentary on certain issues that interested me really elevated my course experience. Likewise, the assigned material was always interesting and featured a broad range of voices. Your own contributions with your own knowledge and research with Gitxaala also enriched the course, as well as brought it closer to home for us from BC. Overall, the course was so well done and I am really thankful I had the opportunity to take it. Thank you



ANTH 478  n=6/18.  3/10 comments specifically discuss COVID-19 teaching.


Small group teams were very beneficial as I felt comfortable asking them for tips or their honest opinions as I assembled my video, and acted as a sort of friend–support group since we were unable to meet in person. Thank you for being understanding and patient as we all adjust to online learning, especially for a course that is very hands–on. Despite being online, Prof. Menzies made it very accessible and I am confident in how my project came out.


I greatly appreciate how supportive Charles has been throughout this process. It has been a challenging class to do with COVID–19.


Instructor contributed above and beyond what I expected. Instructor extremely knowledgeable, engaged, informative, generous with comments, excellent listener, encouraging, supportive, inspiring, dedicated, creative, excellent communicator and writer, exceptionally well–versed in Ethnographical film and Anthropology, superior teaching style. Always participated in group conversations, continually checked in through the course to see how students were doing – not simply on an academic level. Touched all the bases teaching, care, keen observations, quality instruction. All with limited resources due to Covid 19 parameters. Honourable, respectful, kind. Learning structure was excellent. Textbook suggestion excellent. Always available. Created an intense, 6 week course from in–class to online in an excellent manner. Worked with the students, building students. Productive learning sessions daily. Humourous, great speaker, gave excellent instruction. Superb course!


1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Charles, for your assessment of online teaching/learning. I am inspired by your statement that, "However, I have also picked [up] instructional techniques and approaches that I intend to continue irrespective of whether I am teaching online or in person." So glad you are using this as a learning experience!