Delivering quality learning experiences by teaching differently in an inter-session remote delivery GIScience course

July 30, 2020

The rapid-fire pivot to remote course delivery may eventually become both a blessing and a curse. A blessing since it allowed course continuity when the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in March 2020. A curse since students may now be experiencing remote delivery fatigue arising from a dizzying onslaught of technology, pedagogy and knowledge all within socially restricted teaching and learning environments. In these circumstances, student learning experiences and achievements may be inadvertently pushed to the background as course completion, grade distributions and academic integrity come to the foreground. To re-focus efforts on student learning, a deliberate strategy of teaching differently was developed and used in the recently concluded Summer 2020 GEOG255 (Geographical Information Science I) intersession course.

GEOG255 is an intensive 7-weeks course taught by Dr. Shiv Balram. In the course, students complete two 2hrs-lecture sessions plus two 2hrs-lab sessions each week. There were 65 students registered with 5 withdrawals (either non-attendance since the beginning of term or personal issues) and 60 students completing the course. The delivery mode was primarily asynchronous making it even more crucial to mediate student learning. There were regular assignments, quizzes, a data analysis project, and an online final exam with three components. The difference is in how these elements are combined, reinforced and presented.

The anonymous student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. A total of 48 of 58 students (83%) rated the course design and delivery as either 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale. On average, students spent the same number hours on the course materials as would be expected for a 3-credit course in face-to-face mode. In response to teaching and learning interactions, only 16% (9 of 58 students) would like to have contact with course peers and 19% (11 of 58 students) with the instructor. This is contrary to the belief that students require more social interactions in the current remote learning situation.

In the SETC feedback, the response rate was 93% with students overwhelmingly reporting high ratings (either 4 or 5) for many of the learning experience questions posed. Of greater importance are the comments highlighting the fact that the re-focus on student learning yielded positive outcomes for some students who may have otherwise been lost by the wayside:
- "This course was more difficult for me personally because I personally find it more difficult to stay motivated online, however, I found the lectures and lab videos very straightforward and easy to follow";
- "I have very limited knowledge when it comes to computers and software based ways of working. I was intimidated going in to the course but I know [now] feel much more confident in my abilities and will likely pursue more GIS related courses from SFU";
- "Of all my courses this was the most organized for online learning".

The lessons learned from Summer 2020 point to some possible futures for learning and teaching in Fall 2020. The worst-case scenario is that student learning experiences will suffer and attrition rates will increase. The best-case scenario, which may not necessarily be from the business-as-usual approach, is that student learning experiences will improve to new highs.