October 13, 2020

A student’s perspective: How two instructors created connection online

According to education student Justin Lai, the colour-coded instructor comments and interjections in the Canvas course notes for EDUC 437 helped pace the material and created a sense of connection with the instructor.

Justin Lai is in his final semester as an undergraduate in the SFU Faculty of Education, after following a path that began in biology and crossed through business and economics with stops in multiple other disciplines. That varied background has given him a broad perspective on learning and teaching.

When the university conducted its Student Online Learning Experiences (SOLE) survey in June/July 2020 to see how students were doing after the COVID-19–related move to remote instruction, Lai offered a “shoutout” to EDUC 437: Ethical Issues in Education, an online course he took in Fall 2019. The course—developed by education professor Heesoon Bai with technical support from a team led by educational developer Kanthi Jayasundera from what is now the Centre for Educational Excellence, and delivered by sessional instructor Scott Bowering—concluded well before the coronavirus outbreak, but Lai saw elements that he felt would be worth emulating in other courses that have “gone remote.”

“Breathe and reflect”

One novel element of the course was Bai’s interpolation of editorial comments and interjections such as “Laugh,” “Sigh” and “Breathe and reflect” in the Canvas course notes.

The comments broke up material that could otherwise have been quite dense. At the same time, they inserted a sense of Bai’s presence even in the online environment.

“It’s kind of like she [was] literally talking to you through the screen,” said Lai.

He credited the practice with increasing his retention of the course material.

“The way she did it, you just had to do one read and you totally understood what she was talking about … She put herself in the shoes of the reader—how would I feel, how would I learn this, and what is the relevance of this. So I think that’s super important and super different from what many other professors have done in the past.”

Openness breeds openness

The sense of engagement with the instructor was also central to LBST 330: Selected Topics in Labour Studies, his first remote course in Summer 2020. In this case the instructor was Laya Behbahani, a term lecturer in the Department of Labour Studies and the director of SFU’s Student Experience Initiative.

“I think she’s been awesome,” said Lai. “She’s been one of the best professors I’ve ever had in my entire undergraduate career.”

One of the traits he appreciated most was her willingness to ask for feedback.

For students, said Lai, that openness to dialogue demonstrated confidence and created a sense of connection.

“It’s not taking anything away from her credentials, it’s not taking anything away from her professionalism, but the fact that she offers that [invitation] makes students comfortable. It makes students more willing to be open and more willing to approach you.”

As a budding educator, Lai learned a number of lessons from the two courses and their instructors: “You have to be authentic, you have to think of other options, and you have to be adaptable.”

The result, he concluded, can be exceptional learning experiences, whether the environment is physical or virtual.

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