What Covid taught me: Reflections on teaching during and after a Pandemic

2020 was an exceptionally trying year for many educators. Many were forced to change the delivery of their classes or training from in-person to online in the blink of an eye, while also dealing with the effects of a pandemic in their own lives. There were steep learning curves around technology, new social norms, and how to make sure the crazy mute button was turned off in Zoom.

As educators are preparing to go back to some version of in-person learning in September we reached out to a couple of our favourite teachers to ask them a couple of questions about how they coped with changing their teaching over the past year, what they learned and how they might be changing things in the future based on that learning.

Who we talked to and why

Alyson Connolly (M.FA) is an expert voice and public speaking coach in Edmonton, Canada. Through workshops and 1-on-1 coaching sessions, she will teach you proven techniques to overcome your fear of public speaking, beat your anxiety, and make powerful presentations and engaging speeches. If you want to influence people with the power of your ideas, the power of your voice has to come first. She can help you find your voice. You can connect with Alyson here.

Gavin Bradley is an instructor at the University of Alberta in Paleontology. In addition, he’s been one of the university’s leaders in delivering MOOC-based learning as the Science MOOC Coordinator in the Faculty of Science at the UofA. You can check out the UofA MOOCs here.

We chose these two to share their thoughts because they’re both progressive thinkers, excellent evaluators and frankly, really smart. Full disclosure, we’ve worked with both of them before here at Onlea and we’re fans, but we also think that what they have to say can be really valuable for you.

The Questions and Answers

1. What was something that surprised you when you moved your teaching practice online last year during Covid?

Alyson: What surprised me was how easy it was to change to coaching online. I asked people that I knew who were already running meetings online for their advice on how to work virtually. My husband and I are empty-nesters, so I converted one of the basement bedrooms into my studio. We, or shall I say, my husband, painted the room a warm colour. I bought a ring light to improve the lighting and a good chair to sit on. When coaching or giving a keynote in person, we look at the audience. When working virtually, the audience is in the camera which is the light in your computer or your webcam. It is important for the camera to be at eye level. My husband built a lectern to put my laptop on so that the camera was at eye level and I could look at the audience with ease.

Gavin: I was surprised by how much I relied on student interactions to keep my lecturing engaging. I made the choice to record lectures asynchronously to be as accessible and equitable as possible and immediately noticed how my enthusiasm and cadence dropped without the constant feedback loop of student reactions or questions.

On a more positive note, I was also surprised by how much students got out of some of the online experiences- especially the activities (virtual museum and lab tours for example).

2. What was a new tool or practice that you began using during Covid that you’re going to continue to use going into the future?

Alyson: I now can work with clients from all over the world. This is something that I never thought I’d be able to do. Of course, the big obstacle is remembering the time change!

Many companies have offices in different parts of the country or in the world. Working virtually allows anyone to join in without the expense and time to travel. Before Covid, I was contracted to give a keynote in person for approx. 75 employees for Esso in Calgary. I did it virtually and the attendance rose to 395!

Gavin: Two new tools I used were "virtual tours" of facilities on campus and "podcast lessons". The virtual tours were wonderful options to have for a tactile subject like Paleontology and allowed us to visit museums and labs even when they were physically closed. I loved how accessible it made these trips too, and has made me reconsider some of my field trips for the upcoming year, as to how I can improve accessibility (probably with the addition of virtual content).

I've incorporated "audio course notes" into my teaching for a long time as I believe it's a super simple option to give your students and increases the number of students who actually "do the readings". It allows them to fit class readings into their daily exercise, home or transport routine and I've had lots of fantastic feedback from students on these. During Covid, I also decided to try some "podcast" lessons, where I would act as an interviewer to another researcher. The "improv" style was nerve-wracking at first, but it turned out to be one of, if not the most engaging lessons of the semester! I'll absolutely be incorporating this type of lesson into my next semester, whether it's a panel-style class in-person, or an audio podcast, that we can then reflect on as a class.

3. What’s a tool or practice that you realized you didn’t need anymore when you were teaching during Covid and that you’ll be leaving behind as you move into the future?

Alyson: Leaving behind the worry of not being able to be in the room. For years I had a bunion that was so painful, and my doctor advised me to get it removed. That meant 6 weeks completely off my feet and two weeks walking with a boot. Eight weeks total! All my workshops and 1-1 coaching were in person before Covid, and I didn’t want to lose work because I couldn’t drive to clients’ offices or having to coach while using a knee scooter. Because I had nowhere to go and was working downstairs in my home virtually, I had the surgery.

In the future, if I’m unable to drive across the city for an appointment due to back-to-back clients, I will offer the coaching session online.

Gavin: Honestly, the biggest realization I had was the futility of lectures that last more than an hour. The temptation while lecturing is to expand your talk to fill the time you have, when it should really be the other way around. The stark drop off in student engagement in or response to a 30/40 minute video vs. an hour or more was immense, and I'll be carrying that lesson into my face-to-face teaching time. When writing lectures, if I've hit my learning objectives after x number of minutes, and I still have y minutes left, then y can be spent on discussions, reviews, activities or even just time for the students to unwind between classes.

We’re very grateful to Alyson and Gavin for their wisdom and openness in these answers. There are some very valuable lessons in their words for every teacher and trainer trying to improve their practice. We hope that all the teachers and trainers out there have a good return to the classroom this fall (if you’re returning to the classroom) and if you need any help, just ask, that’s what we’re here for.

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Jeff Woodward

Jeff Woodward

Creative Director at Onlea