June 30, 2021
UCalgary social work and science teachers recognized for innovative online work
The sudden switch to online instruction during COVID-19 presented an immediate challenge for everyone at the University of Calgary — but resourceful teachers and resilient students quickly adapted.
Four of these innovative instructors were recently recognized by the UCalgary Students’ Union. Their efforts to make remote learning more meaningful and positive involved strategies such as using chat slang in teaching, encouraging students to collect insects in their neighbourhoods, emphasizing personal experience through the Afrocentric philosophy of Ubuntu, and designing online content that is easy to read and navigate.
The award-winning educators — Dr. Ryan Henry, Dr. Mindi Summers, Lola Emiko and Tiffany Gloeckler — represent the incredible UCalgary faculty who have gone to significant lengths to adapt their teaching in the wake of COVID-19, many going above and beyond for their students by making the learning experience just as valuable online as it is in person.
Dr. Ryan Henry, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, took the initiative to purchase supplies such as a whiteboard and document camera right when UCalgary transitioned to online instruction. He says he also learned the slang language students used in virtual chats to better engage with them. This opened opportunities for him to answer questions and further strive for the students’ success in the virtual classroom.
In his lectures, Henry ensures he puts in optimal effort in to keep students engaged and make the most of online teaching and learning. As a result of his hard work, Henry’s classes have had substantially high attendance. “I wanted to do more than just sit in front of the camera and ramble on for hours at a time,” he says.
Online learning can be demoralizing for students; therefore, Henry integrates humour into his lectures to give students something to look forward to. “I’d like to think that students got more than just the learning out of my lectures and something positive for their mental health, with being able to socialize a bit and have a bit of a laugh,” he says. “Going to university, you feel like you’re bettering yourself and then suddenly the world shuts down and you feel like that value is disappearing.”
Dr. Mindi Summers, PhD, is an instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Summers says her teaching philosophy centres on “students doing what scientists do.”
Her innovative teaching practices utilize a hands-on approach. In her Zoology 435 course, she encourages students to collect and document insects in their neighbourhoods. They then pin and curate the physical specimens at home using a simplified identification keys that Summers and her team designed; this means that students can identify their specimens at home, without a microscope. “People’s living spaces became their lab for the course,” she says.
Summers also values the approach of collaborating and co-creating with students. “I like to bring them [the students] into the process of teaching, but I also like to bring them into the process of doing real research, getting knowledge and sharing it outwards,” she says.
Lola Emiko, a Faculty of Social Work sessional instructor, teaches Practice and Evaluation with Families and Critical Approaches to Social Work. Her teaching innovation focused on creating a universal approach that allowed all students — and their diverse learning styles — to successfully engage with course content.
“Creating curriculums that cater to people’s different learning styles is so important,” says Emiko.
In addition, Emiko’s experiential teaching technique is centred on participatory and collaborative approaches. She says her style of teaching “is rooted in the Afrocentric philosophy of Ubuntu, which means, ‘I am because you are,’” adding that knowledge shifts to more of an exchange and is reciprocated between students and instructors. The source of information is more of a community contribution, rather than being centred on one individual.
“I think, as instructors, we all need to shift away from being the only sources of information: because, even if some students may not have work or professional experiences, they have lived experiences and those lived experiences count. They matter,” she says.
Also with the Faculty of Social Work, Tiffany Gloeckler, MSW’21, began her role as a sessional instructor teaching two sections of Research in Context with Social Work when the pandemic began.
“That forces a level of adaptation,” she says of having to pivot when in-person teaching was suspended.
Gloeckler, who studied education at the University of Alberta, also has experience as a web designer. Her knowledge and expertise in universal design and practices in education allowed her to innovate her teaching style. Gloeckler created content that is easy to read and navigate for her students, while incorporating Mastery learning, which she says means that, “most students can achieve a master-level understanding of a given topic when provided with enough time, scaffolding and instruction. Further, a certain level of knowledge is necessary for students to progress to higher levels.”
Through this approach, Gloeckler offers flexibility, giving students unlimited time limit and attempts on assessments. “In that way, it is sort of universal,” she says. “Folks who would normally need accommodations or extended time periods for different modalities can more easily access it without changing the foundation or nature of the assessment.”