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Silver Linings in the Face of COVID-19: The Shift to Online Learning Delivery

                                                                             

In October 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Instructure hosted its first ever virtual CanvasCon. In the backdrop of the monumental change brought about by lockdowns, school closures, and hundreds of web-conference meetings, Samantha Blyth, Senior Sales Director, organised a showcase of leading and innovative Canvas institutions, discussing how they have adapted to the 'new normal'.

Throughout the session, what unravelled was a touching and thought-provoking discussion around how institutions have gone above and beyond to support their staff and students, with some unpredictable successes. In this blog, we want to dedicate some time to focussing on those unpredictable successes, made possible by educators across Europe.

Activate Learning, who run several schools and Further Education colleges, have been using Canvas since 2015, and faced the dual challenge of needing to ensure all staff were confident in using the digital tools, and needing to provide extra support to students when the UK went into lockdown. Even before COVID-19, Activate Learning has ring-fenced Wednesday afternoons for staff Continuous Professional Development (CPD). When it was clear that COVID-19 would have a long-term effect on educational delivery, these sessions became fully focussed on digital tools - Canvas and BigBlueButton - and ensuring staff were confident in using both. Sessions were recorded and complemented by other recorded videos in alt format, to support staff.

“Canvas has provided the opportunity and functionality in order to provide these offerings
. It’s just so versatile, I get quite excited!” Kim Blanchard - Activate Learning

When lockdown took effect, it became clear that staff confidence alone would not weather the storm. Activate Learning took the decision to provide prospective students with Canvas accounts, and they were enrolled in a course that provided the student with location information, expectations of what it is like being an Activate Learning student, and to instil a sense of community.

With students in Activate Learning’s digital ecosystem, Activate Learning’s staff rose to the challenge of communicating with every prospective student. Every teacher picked up the phone and called applicants. The aim was to ensure each student understood what Activate Learning’s plan was for the coming September term.

The project was a success, and Activate Learning was able to increase conversion of applications, and replicate many previously in-person activities - running online orientation programmes, online virtual freshers, and career fairs. The experience their learners had was made possible by the digital tools Activate Learning had invested in, but was realised due to the never-give-in spirit of their teachers and staff members.

The dual challenge of supporting staff, with digital confidence, and students, with communication, was apparent across the speaker list. Hochschule Aalen, who were an Early Adopter of Canvas in Germany, realised early on how much they were supported in their digital shift due to being an Early Adopter. With investment in tools already secured, Hochschule Aalen could focus on investment in Services to support these tools.

"Technology is one thing, but to get people, especially Professors, to deliver a good learning experience, you need to provide lots of support. So we went to our students and asked them to support our team" - Dr. Martin Franzen, Hochschule Aalen

Where Activate Learning’s staff rose to the challenge of supporting prospective students, Hochschule Aalen’s students rose to the challenge of supporting Professors. Mobilising a Canvas CORE support team, Aalen students were tasked with building a services team that made the delivery of a summer semester possible. Students supported Professors with training, course design support, and confidence-building.

When Hochschule Aalen reached their objective of all learning being hosted online, the Canvas CORE team turned their attention to supporting fully online digital assessments, run through Canvas and DigiExam. Hochschule Aalen’s digital ecosystem of Canvas, Zoom conferencing and DigiExam, won them accolades in their state.

“We are hearing of so many silver linings in this session - we will all be doing our industry a disservice if we don’t carry these on.”Samantha Blyth, Instructure

Moving beyond the unprecedented shift to online learning delivery, the speakers had some unique silver linings in relation to student engagement. Deborah Millar, who works for Grimsby Institute, described how Grimsby were ‘catapulted from our familiar working environment’. Although the Grimsby Institute was well-positioned for online instruction, not everyone was at the same level, and their challenge was tailoring their support to each level. Although this shift was difficult, Deborah informed attendees how she has witnessed quieter students becoming more vocal and prolific on things like Wiki Pages and Discussions. Suddenly, Deborah told attendees, students with English as a Second Language, or with a learning disability, are becoming more vocal in group work because their barriers to entry are lower in a digital ecosystem. They feel more equal in an online environment, and have a space and environment to learn just as effectively.

The reducing of barriers to student engagement was also witnessed by Alexis, a student at Swansea University. Alexis had just started her Masters, and described to attendees how being wholly online meant students were asking more questions in a group, as they don’t have the ability to speak to the lecturer privately after class. Unlike a 150-person lecture, which can be intimidating for quieter or less confident students, Alexis witnessed more raised hands on their Teams calls than ever before.

Dr Sara de Freitas, a leading expert on online learning experiences, had heard of similar experiences at Wey Education. Many students feel more free and liberated to participate online. She has studied online learning across the full age range, and commented that this liberated feeling is actually amplified with younger audiences.

We hope that we have brought some positivity, in the form of silver linings in the face of COVID-19, to 2020, and we raise a toast to every plucky educator out there.