Business as Unusual: The New Normal for Online Learning

A recent conversation with a pair of BCcampus Ed Tech Fellows highlighted some of the different responses to the current pandemic and led us to reach out to various voices in the world of online education to explore what’s working, what’s not, and what we can expect for the future.

Post by BCcampus’ editorial team

Adapting to Glocal Influences

Sarah Van Borek, BCcampus EdTech fellow, Ph.D. candidate at Rhodes University, and instructor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, shared her experience from Cape Town, South Africa.

“We went into a 21-day lockdown on March 26, and we’re not out of it yet,” said Sarah. “All universities closed for face-to-face instruction, including the residences, which caused numerous students to move back to their rural communities, many of which don’t have reliable access to the internet and several lacking cell service. There was an immediate response from Rhodes to improve online access, with people donating their old cellphones and laptops and the university providing a mobile data bundle for students.

“One of the most interesting changes that I saw in terms of online learning was the use of WhatsApp, a text and voice messaging app that is very popular in South Africa. Through the app’s group chat feature, instructors can moderate the discussion and students can leave voice notes, which gives them the ability to have their voices heard asynchronously. My research focus, as an EdTech Fellow, is on podcasting and sound storytelling to support diversity in online learning environments, so I found the choice to use this medium intriguing.

“For the past decade, as I’ve been moving between Canada and South Africa for my work and studies, I’ve imagined a north–south dialogue. Now, due to COVID-19, it’s happening organically, and I’m in the process of reimagining the course I would have been teaching in Vancouver this summer as an online course. I need to factor in which apps to use, how to prepare for students who only have cellphones, and the reality that many students come from other countries to study at Emily Carr, and now they’ll be learning remotely. It’s fascinating that the forced global aspect of the classroom will influence the way I design the educational technology for my program.”

A Crash Course in Open Education

“This pandemic has been a learning experience for many educators, introducing them to the world of open as they shift from traditional to online learning,” said Dr. Derek Turner, instructor at Douglas College and BCcampus EdTech fellow. “I spent a huge amount of time in March trying to digest all of the options available, my inbox full of articles about best practices for learning online. The info was coming from people who have much more experience in online learning than I do, but the lists and articles and blogs would often contradict each other. Moving forward, I’d like to see more organization of and for open educational resources. Not just experts saying, ‘this worked for me,’ but the ability for individuals to get together to come up with a cohesive framework for others to follow. Resources curated and available in one or two repositories so people know where to find them and the quality they can expect. These resources are available, but they’re discipline specific and not B.C. focused, and I think there’s an opportunity to improve. BCcampus is leading the charge and curating these resources for educators and students, and this will be very useful to prepare for fall programs.

“The focus on learners through this experience — for the most part — has given us the opportunity to focus on what’s best for students. The asynchronous options are exciting, and there’s an opportunity to rethink the structure of our classes. This whole situation has forced institutions to be more open to this type of change. In the past, some educators might have been excited to tear everything apart and build it back up with a goal of helping students learn in a better way, but the institutions wouldn’t be able to support it. Not because they didn’t want to, but because it was difficult for them to do it. Now there’s an opportunity for institutions to let the reins go and encourage creative and new approaches. It’s scary, but it’s also inspiring for educators to have that freedom. The research is available, the interest is there, and the resources are open, so now is the time to make it happen.”

Myths and Misconceptions

“Throughout the pandemic, everyone is talking about online learning, and everyone has an opinion,” shared Clint Lalonde, project manager at BCcampus and associate faculty, School of Education and Technology, Royal Roads University. “What surprised me was the resurgence of many of the zombie ideas about online learning creeping into the discussions, such as the idea that online learning isn’t as personal, or that you can’t have interactivity, or that it just doesn’t work. And while it is true you need to change how you think about your course — you can’t just replicate what you used to do in the classroom — there’s an opportunity to evolve your teaching practices and create a better learning experience for your students.”

Pivoting to Designing for Online Learning

“I always wonder about that word ‘pivot’: it suggests a rapid, neat, and tidy turn, from one thing to another, and implies you can turn back just as quickly and neatly,” shared Dr. Jesse Stommel, digital learning fellow and senior lecturer of digital studies at University of Mary Washington. “Instead, the pandemic has forced everyone to rethink what education is for, how they design their courses, and what kind of relationships they want to build with students. What’s happening now is going to reshape education for years, if not decades.

“There’s a lot of discussion about the return to face to face in the fall — I see a lot of unwillingness to let go of what the fall is going to look like. People want the old normal, not the new normal. We will, to some degree, get back to what we know and love, but it won’t ever look like it did before.”

“One of the things missing from the move to online education is the place for open source ed tech infrastructure, especially in the context of data privacy concerns around some of the proprietary ed tech we’ve come to rely on,” said Dr. Tannis Morgan, advisor for learning and teaching and researcher for open education at BCcampus. “Like your physical buildings on campus, you also have a somewhat invisible set of resources called your educational technology. If you don’t understand it well and don’t treat it as important infrastructure, your ability to move online sustainably will be challenged. Sometimes institutions see eLearning as a project, not a strategy. Online learning isn’t a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants project; it has to be integrated into your academic plan and institutional strategy. I hope that COVID-19 underlined that for institutions.”

“I hope that where we’re going with this, system-wide,” shared Clint, “is more resources devoted to well-resourced teaching and learning centres: bringing on more instructional designers, ed techs, and learning technologists — because that’s how we can create effective strategies to continuously improve teaching and learning online.”

Making Room for Asynchronous Learning

“There’s a lot wrong with synchronous teaching. We can do it better, whether that’s online or face to face,” shared Dr. Tony Bates, research associate at Contact North. “We’ve known for over 30 years now that one-hour lectures are not a great way to teach: you can have a good one-hour session, but can you have 13 over a semester? It’s about cognitive load, and students can’t focus for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time without being distracted. There’s room for synchronous discussion, but we can do it better. There’s a huge amount of research into online learning and what happens when students have access to online learning whenever they want it. And just like in real life, you have to know how to do both synchronous and asynchronous interactions well.”

The Student Voice

“We need more emphasis on open pedagogy that puts students at the heart of their own education,” said Jesse. “Too much education software and resources are still far too institution- or teacher-focused, and what we need is more students involved in the construction of those tools and resources. We need to stop imagining as educators that we’re building education for students, and make room for students to have a much larger say in the future of their education. We need to make space for the voices of communities who haven’t traditionally been heard: non-traditional learners, students who are food or housing insecure, students who are neurodivergent, students of colour, and Indigenous students. We must think of all these populations and the degree to which our educational system — our technology, our platforms — has not been built for them. We do a lot of work to make our methods accessible, but at the core, our systems, institutions, and platforms aren’t really built for — or by — those students.”

Faculty Development

Dr. Bonnie Stewart, assistant professor at the University of Windsor, said, “Many educators haven’t paid a ton of attention to the value proposition of online learning over the last twenty years. But suddenly, here we all are, online. As challenging as it is, I’m seeing online pedagogy’s focus on equity and care resonating with many of those new to the medium. Folx I haven’t had the privilege of speaking with before are suddenly coming out to listen, joining how-to webinars and learning sessions, and being part of the conversation. I’m noticing new people connecting to the pedagogy and decision-makers who have traditionally treated online as marginal calling us up for more information. It’s an interesting moment.”

Academic Freedom vs. Student Capacity

“What we’ve been doing over the past two months is an emergency adaptation to remote learning,” explained Bonnie. “As we look down the road at the upcoming changes, we need clarity and consistency across all programs. I teach digital technology, and I have academic freedom to choose not just what I teach, but how I teach it. I’ve used really experimental styles over the past few years, but I won’t be doing that as much over the coming year because I shouldn’t. My classes are traditionally where students get to work with tools and platforms outside of the norm. If everyone moving online treats it that way, the cognitive load on the students will be absolutely overwhelming. My right to flex my academic freedom regarding platforms should be superseded by care and consideration for my students’ cognitive loads across a program. Navigating different platforms and tools is hard and distracting. In my program, students take ten courses at once. If you have ten teachers, that’s a lot to just replace sitting in a class or reading books or links.”

To learn more about the opportunities and possibilities available through educational technologies and open educational resources, visit this web page on open education on

Notable Quotes:

“Online learning isn’t something we only do during COVID-19. It’ll be around all the time, and it’ll be even more important after we find the new normal.”

—Dr. Tony Bates, research associate, Contact North | Contact Nord

“The question now is about the emphasis institutions will put on faculty development, with focused central support from an effective teaching and learning centre.”

—Dr. Tannis Morgan, open education researcher, BCcampus

“If you read one book, you know how to read a book, but if you have Edsby and Zoom and WordPress from different instructors across different programs, those platforms are not interchangeable. We need to be mindful of our students’ cognitive loads.”

Dr. Bonnie Stewart, assistant professor, University of Windsor

“One of the most vital tools and resources that I’ve seen people using is their human capacities for compassion and patience — the degree to which faculty are stepping up and approaching their students from a place of care, and a place of genuine desire for students to feel a sense of hope, safety, and flexibility.”

—Dr. Jesse Stommel, digital learning fellow and senior lecturer of digital studies, University of Mary Washington

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