September 14, 2020

Mark Lechner: “You have to be OK with things going sideways”

For Mark Lechner, the move to remote instruction reinforced his belief that successful teaching combines planning and flexibility.

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, Mark Lechner (university lecturer and academic integrity advisor, Health Sciences) was teaching two 300-level courses that made extensive use of in-class activities like laboratory field trips, show-and-tell sessions, and team-based case studies. Lechner anticipated challenges in moving those course elements online—but ultimately found another course component more problematic.

The challenge of online exams

“The experience with the final exams was and is worrisome because of my concern that an online final exam would not recapitulate the type of testing that is done in the face-to-face setting.”

He also worried about academic integrity.

“Concern over cheating and distribution of the exam is also real. If someone looks up the answer on the internet, then we are not really evaluating if they can comprehend and apply their learning. An assessment of teaching and learning has essentially been nullified. I am not certain I would run online exams again.”

On the plus side, he received valuable advice about online assessment from the Centre for Educational Excellence.

“They provided me with great tips on how to navigate Canvas options and implement some best practices like creating a practice quiz so students could familiarize themselves with the setup for the exam.”

Some things were simple

Moving his course activities online proved to be more straightforward than he had anticipated.

“I was lucky in the human pathophysiology course, since over the past few years I took the time to record all the lectures using Camtasia and have them all available to students ahead of time from the very beginning of the semester.”

That allowed him to continue his practice of using class time “to go over topics or concepts that students identify ahead of time as tricky” with the help of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Zoom.

In fact, the interactive approach he favours for face-to-face learning transferred very well to the online environment.

“For the switch to online sessions, though we reduced the number of case studies, they still ran very smoothly, and I witnessed the same degree of discussion and collaboration alongside students' excitement, puzzlement, confidence, discovery, typos and more. The whole mix was really there.”

Breaks and jokes

He has concluded that certain fundamental elements apply to both in-person and online instruction.

“I found that breaks are needed and appreciated in the online environment just like in person and that sharing jokes works online too! In my experience so far, the teaching and learning approaches that foster collective learning and active engagement in person will be the ones that work the best online. So this is what I am currently prioritizing for my fall courses.”

Lechner has seen a number of positive outcomes for his students in the online environment.

“I continued to see a strong level of questions and discussion going on in the online environment; perhaps it was even higher than in person. The chat dialogue was actually very hard to keep up with!

“I also really valued that we were able to check in with each other online and show care for each other's well-being. Perhaps this was stimulated to a certain extent by the pandemic, but I still felt we were supporting one another, and I would like to thank the students for being so supportive. I was really impressed.”

He noted that instructors can play an important role in fostering well-being by providing “regular opportunities for meetings and discussions to still take place […] I think more than ever, students will want to know someone is there for them.”

Sometimes things go sideways

The move to remote learning has reinforced Lechner’s conviction that successful teaching requires a mix of planning and flexibility.

“Planning pays off, but you also have to be OK with things going sideways. I think many things have worked well for the most part because of being organized and thinking carefully about teaching and learning approaches ahead of time. Yet, there is only so much you can plan for, and people are not robots anyway. [I learned that] a certain degree of spontaneity and novelty is actually quite important. Every event is laden with new possibilities, so be aware of and appreciate them as much as you can. This happens all the time with in-person classes, and I really want this to be a feature of my remote and online courses.”


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