September 13, 2020

Nienke van Houten: “They really valued my clear and upfront approach”

Nienke van Houten discovered something about herself during the transition to remote instruction: "I can adapt and learn quickly to manage a fast change in the face of a very uncertain and fearful time."

On March 16, 2020, less than four weeks before the end of the Spring semester, SFU made the decision to suspend face-to-face instruction in response to the spread of COVID-19. Overnight, instructors were required to move their courses and final exams online. Their efforts to maintain effective learning experiences for their students were, and continue to be, heroic. During the summer, we asked six of them how they were doing. Here is what they told us.

In Spring 2020, Nienke van Houten (senior lecturer and director, undergraduate programs, Health Sciences) was teaching two classes, one with just over 90 students and one with more than 200 students. Both used lectures combined with case studies and in-class activities, plus tutorials with discussions and presentations. All of that changed when she moved the courses online.

“I went to almost completely asynchronous teaching aside from office hours, reduced the content at the end of the course, and changed the assessment strategy. Specifically, I cancelled all presentations and changed the final exam format to a take home–style exam.”

Scrambling to learn

The move to remote instruction required her to pick up new technical skills on the fly. A colleague provided her with useful guidance via YouTube.

“There was an overwhelming amount of information flying around. I needed to figure out how to record my lectures. Kevin Lam in [Biological Sciences] had recorded a couple of YouTube videos on using Camtasia. I decided to go use that as a way to record my lectures. I may not use it in the future, but it was a good choice on short notice and had a small learning curve to get something posted.”

It’s all about communication

When asked to reflect upon what worked best for her and her students during the transition, she singled out the importance of communication.

“I think this will become more clear with time, experience and practice. However, I aimed to be very explicit about my plans for ending the course with the students and had a lot of communication in the Canvas container about what that would look like. I gave a summary of the assessment strategy change and created discussion threads where students could ask questions. Several students provided unsolicited comments that they really valued my clear and upfront approach during a time when there was a great deal of uncertainty about everything.”

There’s an upside

Amid the challenges, van Houten observed at least one positive development for students in the remote environment, related to individual control over learning.

“I think the asynchronous format can help some students with managing their schedules, not having to commute and learning at a time that best works for them. Being able to pause and rewind lectures can also have a big benefit for students while taking notes.”

And what has been the biggest lesson for her?

“I can adapt and learn quickly to manage a fast change in the face of a very uncertain and fearful time. I will carry the security of that ability with me for a long time.”


Teaching Practice, Course and Curriculum Planning, Technology and Media, Remote Instruction