The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges, causing states of crisis, high stress and anxiety, and rapid changes in many areas of our lives. In an academic setting, the health guidelines in response to the pandemic compelled academic institutions to shift from face-to-face teaching to remote program delivery virtually overnight. Emergency remote program delivery, unlike well-planned online learning, is a rapid transition to virtual teaching in response to pressing crisis circumstances (Hodges et al., 2020). As such, the typical planning and preparation time available for carefully planned online learning experiences was not available in this rapid response to the pandemic, resulting in many challenges for students, instructors, and universities worldwide. My experience transitioning to remote learning as a student at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work (FSW) at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada allowed me to reflect on the unique opportunity that this crisis situation has created for shifting the relationship between instructors and students and enhancing partnerships. This article will discuss my personal experiences of transitioning to a remote learning format and offer recommendations for supporting students throughout this transition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away the sense of pre-pandemic normalcy for many students, creating new challenges and potentially exacerbating existing challenges such as financial difficulties, mental health challenges, isolation, and being away from one’s support networks, all stressors potentially impacting students’ academic lives. In response to such unprecedented times, instructors at the FSW opted to take on an innovative approach to offer remote learning by prioritizing the mental health of students above academic requirements. Instructors quickly recognized that students were experiencing a complex set of feelings, needs and challenges, and opted to engage in an ethical dual-relationship with students: acting both as primary emotional supports and faculty instructors. This approach of flexibility, kindness, and empathy during this time of abnormality was greatly appreciated by students and provided opportunities for enhancing partnerships between students and instructors.
Jean Slick, a professor in the field at Royal Reads University, highlighted the importance of engaging “students as partners” in a recent article she wrote regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and academia. Slick (2020) states that having students as engaged partners “shifts the power relationship between students and faculty”. An example of this shift occurred when one of my instructors asked my class for feedback on which topics we were interested in covering for the remainder of the semester. In that way, our class collectively designed our syllabus, based on what felt manageable for our mental health when juggling the realities of multiple demands. The level of engagement in this course remained consistent, positive and collaborative throughout the duration of the course. As another example, I, as a student, received an invitation to share mental health breathing techniques for managing the stress caused by the pandemic within some of my classes, which offered me an opportunity to contribute to my peer group.
The rapid transition to remote learning highlighted the FSW’s utilization of academic pedagogy within the faculty which places a focus on collaboration between instructors and students. It was evident from my very first day in the Master of Social Work program that instructors valued the personal and lived experiences of students, which allowed us to carry our knowledge into the program. This learning environment was effectively carried over and created within our transition from face-to-face courses to remote learning. The success of this transition was evident in the faculty’s commitment to prioritizing students’ mental health and wellbeing over academic requirements. As part of this commitment, the faculty quickly supported student-led peer initiatives, whereby students had the opportunity to receive support from other students via Zoom, an online video conferencing platform, and organize support for students (e.g., a financial assistance fund). Many instructors completed frequent wellness check-ins via email throughout the week, offering one-on-one and group office hours to discuss current student experiences. I was fortunate to be a part of a class with an exceptional sessional instructor who offered weekly group drop-in Zoom check-ins that created a space to discuss non-academic topics and stressors. These Zoom check-ins included four other students who were having difficulty transitioning to remote learning, social isolation, and coping with the “new normal”. Our instructor provided an empathetic listening ear and opportunities to practice utilizing coping skills and facilitating meaningful discussions, which allowed us to process and normalize our experiences as a collective. As a student from Alberta residing in Ontario, away from all of my natural supports, I found this connection extremely meaningful and helpful.
The FSW is committed to offering an authentic learning experience, one in which I am grateful to participate. Because of this, instructors worked quickly to pivot the material customarily delivered in the classroom to an online and virtual learning platform in a way that was engaging. The use of Zoom features such as screen sharing, breakout rooms, and whiteboard ensured that students were actively participating at all times. The purpose of utilizing the various Zoom features was to mimic a sense of authentic collaboration, similarly experienced during in-classroom education opportunities. Despite these efforts, it is important to recognize that this rapid transition has created certain difficulties. Due to the engaging nature of all classes, workloads became challenging for students. When all classes had requirements for similar levels of engagement, the collective overload became overwhelming. The impact of eight or more hours of screen time between synchronous classes, required readings, assignments, discussion posts and other deliverables per day directly affected my physical and mental health. I experienced severe migraines and nausea due to screen time and, for the first time in my academic career, was forced to miss courses as I was too unwell to participate in the online class. As such, I believe it is essential to be mindful of the reality that in-person and online classes may require different instructional methodologies which can be achieved by a collaboration between faculty and students. Through this collaboration, students and instructors can de-construct the curriculum in order to take into account the increased demands placed on students. For example, a lecture can be pre-recorded and available via video to be watched in segments, offering a break from screen time when consecutive classes are scheduled. These actions could help to support student mental health and wellbeing during this transition.
So, what has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about how we can effectively support students during times of crisis in academia? A number of recommendations and approaches have emerged from the experiences of my peers and I, and are summarized below.
Instructors should be encouraged to:
- approach students with kindness, empathy and flexibility.
- create a space to support students emotionally.
- collaborate with their students regarding ideas of how to meet student online learning goals and how to effectively deliver meaningful academic education, while acknowledging that remote learning formats can be exhausting for many students.
- be aware of their power and privilege in their respective roles.
- be mindful of the intersecting vulnerabilities of students and how these may affect learning experiences.
- engage students by utilizing various online delivery methods while acknowledging that specific formats may not provide effective learning for some students.
- acknowledge and accept the challenges that come with learning from home, where students have family commitments and remain flexible.
- enable peer-led student initiatives and organizing, such as peer counselling, support, and care-mongering groups.
- provide holistic support for students. This requires the faculty to review deliverable deadlines and workload expectations collaboratively, acknowledging that many students are taking almost a full-time course load along with other challenges and responsibilities (including feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and home professional and relational obligations).
Brittany Bruce is a Master of Social Work Student at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning
Slick, J. (2020). Coronavirus: When teaching during a disaster, students need to be partners. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-when-teaching-during-a-disaster-students-need-to-be-partners-136695?utm_medium=ampemail&utm_source=email