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How a class of 800 was redesigned for virtual learning

For many departments, moving to distanced learning required some significant rethinking - and fast
By: Michelle Grady
September 29, 2020
Student sitting outside with laptop and mask on.

Navigating a virtual or online 2020/2021 academic year has meant some creative thinking for many professors and departments. Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash.

When Ryerson made the announcement to the community that all fall semester classes would be delivered either online or virtually, some surely thought this meant shifting lectures to a Zoom format. But for many departments and professors, it wasn't anywhere near this simple.

Departments had their work cut out for them as they reimagined their course content in ways that make sense from a distance. Here’s how two courses underwent a major rethink to ensure students learn effectively online, including one large lecture of 800 students and one in-person intensive course.

Staying engaged with 800 students in a virtual classroom

Noel George in the Faculty of Science has been teaching General Chemistry 1 (CHY103) for 20 years, but envisioning how to deliver it virtually has been all new. The course, which typically has about 640 students, has seen a jump in enrollment this semester to nearly 800 students. For him and his co-instructor, Andrew McWilliams, this posed a big challenge.

When asked how much of a challenge redesigning the course was for virtual learning, George laughs. “It’s been unreal in a way! Running a large course requires a high degree of organization to begin with. But now we have to take it up to the next level. My workload for this course has gone up astronomically. The prep time has basically required entirely recreating the D2L course page after doing my own learning.

“Normally, we divide the class into two lecture sessions of about 400 each. But I can’t just have a Zoom meeting with 400 students,” laughs George. So what George and McWilliams have done instead is break that group up into six smaller groups, with each meeting for one hour per week of synchronous learning with their professors. This time is really designed to review the readings and the lecture material which comprises the remaining two hours of asynchronous learning per week. “To get that bit of interactivity, We will do breakout groups within these smaller 130-person sessions, where they’ll be organized into groups of 5 or so students and they can chat and work on a specific activity.”

Navigating Zoom in this way was something that George had to learn through the professional development offerings at Ryerson. But once he learned how to create break out sessions and use Google Forms to create quizzes, George started getting creative with the course’s format.

“Having students keep up with all the material and not get Zoom fatigue was a real concern of mine. Also, a consideration of mine was that students who are enrolled in five courses will be sitting in on a lot of Zoom calls and watching a lot of videos,” says George. “So we developed a  highly detailed chart that correlates with the textbook and the video material, so that students who tire of watching videos can follow along with the textbook material if they prefer.”

Making a course of this size manageable also meant reviewing the assignments and getting creative. Prior to the virtual delivery, the course was designed to be purely lectures, with two midterms and a three-hour final exam. But George and McWilliams had to rethink that too. “We wanted to reduce the weight of those assessments, so we’ve added a new chemistry project this year, we’ve gotten rid of the final exam and are including three equally weighted term tests while using Google Forms for quizzes in the synchronous hour of class.”

Given the impact the pandemic may have had on students’ final year of high school, a priority for George was providing some review material for incoming students who may have missed some key content in their high school science classes. “I used an open education resource called Libretext (external link) , to make a chemistry primer of all the initial topics that we normally cover in the first week of class,” says George. He and McWilliams released this primer weeks before the semester started to get students off and running.

Reaching learners across Canada

Homelessness in Canadian Society (CINT908) has been a popular interdisciplinary course that the Chang School has run for many years. It faced some challenges when the announcement was made in March that spring courses should be offered online or virtually because it was scheduled as an in-person intensive course. “We wanted to continue to run the course in the spring and summer semester but, like a number of courses, it turned out to be very challenging to do this in a short time frame,” says Gary Hepburn, dean of the Chang School.

“Until now, we didn’t have an online version of the course, and almost all of the interdisciplinary courses are online, as this suits the needs of our learners who include people who are working and also caring for a family simultaneously,” says Amy Clements-Cortes, Chang School instructor and academic coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program. “It was timely to create an online version of this course to be able to offer it to students not only within the GTA but to students across Canada. In the previous fall and winter semester, it was offered as an in-class 13-week course.”

Given the course’s importance and popularity, it was a priority for the team to offer the course for the fall and they worked closely with the Digital Education Strategies (DES) department to re-envision the course as a fully online version.

The DES department provided online education experts including an instructional designer, to put together a rigorous and engaging online version of the course in record time. Clements-Cortes reviewed the content and course structure to ensure it aligned with standards in the Chang school in advance of the fall delivery and a Quality Assurance check was also carried out.

Because the course attracts people in many different disciplines, the team did an extensive development of the materials to ensure that it carried the principles of an interdisciplinary focus. “We tried to help people interact with the material from the perspective of their own discipline,” says Clements-Cortes. “We’re quite proud of the result.”

Grounded in digital storytelling

CINT908 now includes podcasts, recorded interviews, short guiding insights in the form of narrated PowerPoints, interactive components, short videos and small group activities.

Each week the course material is grounded in various forms of digital storytelling that centre the voices and stories of individuals who have or are experiencing homelessness, housing precarity or housing insecurity. Digital stories from professionals in the field is also part of the weekly content. Focusing on current and emerging work, this content presents the stories, field experience, expertise, dilemmas, interventions and debates that community organizers, healthcare professionals, and direct-practice workers are facing.

“The discussion board was crafted to engage students in meaningful conversations and debates, and expose different opinions to get the whole class to talk about different topics each week,” says Dalia Hanna, program director of Community Services at the Chang School.

“Each teaching environment facilitates certain types of learning very well. We’ve taken the best opportunities of online learning to amplify this course and make the experience the best that we can,” says Hepburn.

For the fall, the course is being offered in four sections of 50 students each - all of them full. This will continue through the winter semester as well, and depending on the interest in the spring and summer, the sections may increase to accommodate more students. “We will be watching, as we do with any new course, and accepting student and instructor feedback. We’ll consider making any tweaks that are necessary,” says Hepburn. 

“This course had to be done right now because of the pandemic, which forced us to move quickly, but one of the great advantages when you do something like this is a course is now available to anyone, anywhere. We increase accessibility to students. It’ll become more accessible to people in the GTA, but homelessness isn’t just a Toronto issue, it’s important all over, and it will attract a lot of people.”

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