This time last year the university was preparing to roll-out Canvas to students at the start of the academic year 19/20. One year on and we have 2, 483 modules in Canvas as well as a wide range of approaches to learning, teaching and assessment that have been developed and successfully used. On top of this COVID-19 took hold and resulted in moving all assessments into an online format. So, what does all of this mean for our planning for academic year 20/21?

Time for a deep breath

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that “learning is experience and everything else is just knowledge”. A debatable and hackneyed statement but one that holds some truth in the current situation.  Many of us do have experience of supporting learning online and it is useful to take time to reflect upon this experience.

A good (and important) starting point for planning next year is to take the time to reflect on the past year. There are two key questions to ask:

  • What went well?
  • Even better if?

What tools did you like using in Canvas and why? Do you have any sense of what your students enjoyed and any benefits they took from learning in Canvas? What were the pros and cons?  What worked? What didn’t work?

Academic year 20/21 will be different and this is where the question about what might change can be considered. Below are some prompts that will help you to think about change in planning for this temporary pivot to online learning.

  1. Low tech is best tech. In the current situation think about keeping things simple. During the sudden move to online learning in March this year it became evident that there were a number of tech issues. Firstly there is the load on any system that can cause it to run slow, stall or stop. Some systems cannot cope with the level of demand being put upon them. This doesn’t  just apply to Canvas, which is very stable, but the various solutions that we ‘plug in’ such as Turnitin. Also people, for many reason, do not always have access to suitable software and hardware, wifi can be weak or non-existent. The list is endless. We also know that all learners are not ‘digital natives’. Where you can, keep it simple.
  2. Blended not online. In our context we are planning to support learning online with the aim to move to face-to-face when safe. This is a temporary move to allow us to support students to return or start university in September 2020. Distance Learning, for example, is a complex learning experience that can take many months and hours of work to plan. We know that we may have to alternate between online and face-to-face with social distancing for some time. This is more akin to blended learning where there is a mix of face-to-face and online. It is just that our form of blended will be temporally-driven by the COVID-19 status.  A key question in this temporary situation is what really needs to be taught face-to-face and must wait versus what might just be transferable to an online space especially with a bit of creativity.
  3. Asynchronous is critical. This is key to effective learning in an online platform.  An online space does not need timetabled rather you tend to work in ‘weeks’ or ‘topics’. Students can work through tasks at their own pace (critical in the time of COVID-19).  A one hour lecture does not need to be replaced with a one hour lecture. The same goes for seminars, labs or any other interaction. However, this is not about creating more work. The module CATS and level are still the same. Rather it is about equivalence. What might that one hour lecture look like online? Could there be some reflective questions? A 15 minute lecture that you pre-record at your desk? Maybe followed by a text to be critique and shared in an online seminar? What would make a good learning activity?
  4. Focus on the learning outcomes. This links to point 3 above.  Every activity that is planned should be linked or mapped to your learning outcomes at the module level. Students should be aware of these as well. In addition to point 5 below. You should only assess the learning outcomes of the module. In many ways your learning outcomes are the foundation of your module and should drive both the learning experience and the assessment.
  5. To assess or not assess? We tend to over-assess and in the online space it is important to avoid this. To avoid plagiarism assessments can be authentic and contextual (therefore hard to copy and difficult for an essay mill writer to tackle). Timed i.e. synchronous assessments can be difficult for a number of reasons and therefore days rather than hours can be useful timescales for assessments. SEDA, in a blog written at the start of April, suggested that in designing assessments you should consider authentic assessment (where students demonstrate how they would use disciplinary knowledge), tasks that evaluate, create or analyse the application of a given theory to a local or personal interest / context / problem. And finally that assessments could have a reflective component. In addition more novel ways of presenting assessments, such as presentations or portfolios can make plagiarism far harder.
  6. Community is vital. An online platform works 24/7. That does not mean that you need to be on it 24/7, far from it. However, you do need to create a sense of community. There are easy wins here such as a really short welcome video simply recorded straight onto your canvas page. You need to regularly check in on chats and discussions. Students need to feel that the conversation is there and that when they log in there is a continuation of their learning. Regularly can simply mean daily. Students need a sense that you are there and engaging with them. If you set that expectation then they will engage with you. Remote student engagement has to be one of the biggest challenges in all of this and will be particularly hard with new students such as first years or PGTs.

Next steps

The university is already planning our next steps. We hope to undertake a number of activities that will support you.

Blueprint review. Over the coming weeks we hope to review, with a range of stakeholders, the blueprint template pages that we used in academic year 19/20. We hope to improve on the blueprint and the new version can be used to structure your modules in Canvas for 20/21. Our experience tells us that it is easier to plan learning activities online and then use them in a face-to-face situation if needs be rather than vice versa.

Training and Support. Once you have reflected upon your module delivery and have some ideas about what you would like to do in the academic year 20/21 you can access a range of ‘pick and mix’ training options. We hope to have the catalogue of training prepared and ready to go in June.

Sharing good practice: module exemplars in Canvas. We have been asked if it would be possible to share a number of examples of modules from last year. We are working on this and hope to be able to share a number of modules that showcase what Canvas VLE can do to support online teaching, learning and assessment.

Some resources to support you: