November 30, 2020 5 min read

In the hustle and bustle of every day, it’s easy to get caught up in your new work from home routine and be unmindful of how far you’ve come. Whether it’s the virtual classroom or virtual onboarding, these experiences are learnings much like the harvest before the winter season: necessary, useful and in abundance! That’s why we reached out to our CMA NXT community to bring reflections and insights on the last few months’ virtual adjustments. Their new perspectives and tips are exactly what you’ll need to prepare for the winter term and season.

Information Overload in the Virtual Learning Environment

Frustrated young person sitting in front of laptop.

No stranger to online learning, Professor Steve Joordens of the University of Toronto, shares how the big shift to full-time virtual learning pushed him to assess the virtual learning environment and its effect on attention. “Before the pandemic, I would give two one-hour lectures per week simply because that was when the classroom was booked for us. However, a lot of information can be presented in an hour. In fact, too much information for most students to learn effectively. Cognitive Psychology tells us that the average student can deeply consider about seven (plus or minus two) pieces of information at a time and, unless the lectures are very well crafted, a student’s attention span is not up to a one-hour ask.”

Cindy Stewart, Associate Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley also adds to this similar observation. “We’ve learnt attention span has a lot to do with student success. Add to that digital fatigue from digital overload, you are now down to the duration of a spot ad. Imagine teaching price elasticity of demand in a spot ad!”

So, what’s the solution to that? For Professor Steve, he found “breaking all [his] lectures into shorter twenty minute or so chunks” are the most effective. He continues, “Plus, I use pattern interrupts to keep the online students engaged. These mini-lectures are complimented with two hours of synchronous office hours wherein the students and I discuss things in a more relaxed and human way. That is, when we are together, we have conversations, not lectures. From my sense, this has allowed me to have a better connection with students while also teaching the material in a more interesting and accessible way that promotes deeper learning.”

Roll with Technical Hiccups

When September came rolling in, instructors like Tracy Reese from New Brunswick Community College, kicked things up to high gear on the technical side. “I created all new highly visual presentations, upgraded my tech skills and wondered if I was going to be able to deliver a highly engaging experience for my students in an online format.”

Young man smiling while typing on laptop.

But after all that frantic preparing, Tracy reflects, “Classes started and by the end of the first week, I realized something. Fancy PowerPoints didn’t matter. Students rolled with any tech issues that came up. I didn’t need to change my instructing style at all. My in-person teaching style is high energy. I share my ‘real world’ experience with lots of student engagement and the class response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s a straightforward approach that works. The online learning process isn’t perfect. Tech issues can be frustrating and feeling tethered is a real thing. My biggest concern is always for the students – how are they feeling and can I keep their enthusiasm up.”

With that in mind, Tracy has three best practices ready for the winter term:

  1. Set office hours and stick to them. When students send emails on evenings and weekends it can be hard to resist sending a reply, but it only contributes to the feeling of being tethered and never being ‘off the clock’.
  2. Stay in touch with co-workers. I work with an incredible group of people and scheduling online coffee chats and sharing best practices has been a huge help.
  3. Roll with it! I’m trying to take any hiccups in the online learning process in stride. We all need to cut ourselves some slack while we are navigating these unprecedented times.”

Dealing with Zoom Fatigue & Imposter Syndrome

It goes without saying that virtual learning and remote work has had some unexpected side effects. Lori A. Doan, Ph.D., Instructor at the University of Manitoba, describes the summer as a “whirlwind of learning new teaching methods and technologies” where “terms like ‘Zoom fatigue’ and ‘technology overload’ became a regular part of [her] vocabulary.”

Reflecting further on the experience, she admits “I can pivot on a dime in the classroom, but the virtual environment was a different story. The imposter syndrome that plagued me during my early years as an academic came back as I struggled to find new methods to engage and assess students.”

On top of this, Lori also was in the midst of a new position at work. “As part of my new position, I taught workshops on well-being for instructors. I learned how to adjust my teaching during collective trauma. I attended my colleagues’ workshops and learned new digital tools for the virtual classroom and reached out to the “Ask an Expert” sessions to get help with particularly vexing issues. This became my lifeline as I was forced to break with my traditional lecture approach and use active learning instead.

As the Fall term progressed, my confidence increased and the emails from panicked students decreased. The switch to remote learning forced me to re-evaluate my methods and I am a better instructor because of it. If I could offer one piece of advice it would be to reach out to your teaching and learning centre. You are not alone.”

What Remote Onboarding Looks Like

Smiling woman with coffee in front of laptop.

Speaking on remote onboarding, “Starting a new job at a new company is already tough but doing it all virtually certainly comes with its challenges.”, Sarah Liou, a former CMA NXT Brand Ambassador and a recent grad of McMaster University expresses. “I think the most important thing is to not let that barrier get in the way of your transition. I’ve reached out to different people within my company, setting up ‘virtual coffee chats’ to learn more about their roles or even just to get to know my colleagues better.”

Another helpful tidbit for successful onboarding? “Doing your research and being prepared when collaborating remotely.”, Sonam Nylosang advises, a former CMA NXT Brand Ambassador and a recent grad of the University of Toronto Mississauga experienced this firsthand in her position. “The convenience of walking over to someone to ask a question isn’t a luxury you have when working from home. Emailing is a viable alternative to quick in-person chats, but people are busy and getting a response can take time. Scheduled calls are great ways to communicate with others, but you’re often limited to the amount of time you have in a meeting. Preparing thoughtful questions whenever possible will allow you to gain clarity while maximizing the limited time you have on a call.”

One Virtual Day at A Time

All in all, these shared experiences have us all virtual learning one way or another no matter the scenario. Whether it’s adjusting to a shorter attention span or confronting your technical insecurities, reminding yourself that it’s all part of the process will make each day easier than the next. Find success in the small things in the virtual world of today.

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