Big Thinking Podcast with Terence Day and Thi Kim Thu Le
Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time.
Gabriel Miller, President and CEO of the Federation, is our host.
The global pandemic transformed our classrooms, forced instructors to reinvent their teaching methods and accelerated the use of online learning tools.
Today, Miller is joined by two exciting guests: Professor in the Department of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science at Okanagan College and Adjunct Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University, Dr. Terence Day, and PhD candidate in Educational Studies at the University of Windsor Thi Kim Thu Le, to discuss the future of hybrid and online learning.
Dr. Day recently published a collaborative study on lessons learned from the online pivot, and with Thu Le’s insights both in terms of her personal experience as a PhD student and her research on online learning, we’re hoping to shed light on what the future of learning may look like post-pandemic.
Thank you to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for making this podcast possible.
Follow us on our streaming platforms for more episodes!
[00:00:00] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading scholars about the most important and interesting questions of our time. I'm Gabriel Miller, and I'm the president and CEO of the Federation for Humanities and Social Sciences. The global pandemic transformed our classrooms, forced instructors to reinvent their teaching methods and accelerated the use of online learning tools.
[00:00:28] How has it changed higher education? And what does it mean for the future? Today I'll be talking about the future of online and hybrid learning with two exciting guests. Adjunct Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University, Dr. Terence Day and Thi Kim Thu Le, a PhD candidate in educational studies at the University of Windsor.
[00:00:52] Terence, I gotta turn to you on this question. Thinking back to that period, what were the changes that stand out the most to you about how the pandemic affected your daily work? As a researcher and as an instructor.
[00:01:07] Terence Day: The biggest thing for me, of course, was working from home rather than the college. And I previously published a paper on academic continuity planning in exactly these types of situations.
[00:01:22] And to be honest, I was as unprepared as everybody else was.
[00:01:26] Gabriel Miller: That's fascinating. So I wanna stick with that for a second before I go back to Thu and ask her about her research. You had done research, as you said, on academic continuity planning. Is that what you just, you said prior to Covid hitting and was there anything in what you'd researched that helped you respond in any way?
[00:01:52] Or was it the situation was completely new as far as what you looked at before the pandemic hit?
[00:01:56] Terence Day: The big learning for me, I think was the connection between the students and the prof, students and me, and I think it was really important for me that I preserve that connection, and it was relatively easy in the early days, of course, because we knew the students.
[00:02:16] We'd been working with the students in a classroom and all we did was go online. So really there wasn't that much difference other than the change in the physical space. The style of teaching for me was in fact really quite similar. It was a matter of continuing what was going on previously, and that I think worked very well with the students.
[00:02:41] Now, of course, that completely changed in the context of the following semester and the following semester, where you start meeting students online who had never met before face to face. There was that connection needed to be established. That was the big learning in terms of trying to make, find ways of making that happen.
[00:03:04] Gabriel Miller: Thu. I wanna come back to you. And think about the moment during the pandemic, if I understand this right, when you decided you actually wanted to study and turn your own research to the question of what was happening. Do you remember what, what made you want to study what was happening at that time?
[00:03:22] Thi Kim Thu Le: Uh, actually I changed my research topic or interest since I started my PhD program.
[00:03:29] It is partly because I encountered a lot of difficulties and trouble during online classes during my PhD program, and at that time I see that this research trend haven't received a lot of attention or understudied by many researchers, and I wanted to draw in from my own experience of online learning, I wanted to
[00:03:57] see more about international student learning experience in an online environment. After one semester, I conducted a literature review about like online learning for international students, particularly the benefits of integrating technologies into teaching online and the study file that, like, we develop a taxonomy for the benefits of technology integration into online teaching that are preparing students for 21st century skill, enhancing their academic performance and improving their attitude towards studying online.
[00:04:42] Gabriel Miller: And of the findings from that research,
[00:04:46] what stands out to you as being the most striking or, or the thing that you feel was the most important thing you learned from the work you did?
[00:04:56] Thi Kim Thu Le: The most important thing that I learned from my study is like the way the teachers, uh, design the course for international students in an online environment. Because international students coming from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, the online course designer should have a top consideration, cross cultural instructional design, and they should provide culturally inclusive instruction.
[00:05:27] Abolish cultural linguistic boundaries among international students in order to develop a culturally sensitive online environment and ensure educational equity. And this is firmly a [...] to an enhancements of international student learning, motivation and engagement in an online environment.
[00:05:48] Gabriel Miller: Great importance in integrating cultural understanding into how we approach online instruction.
[00:05:56] And I wonder, does that strike you as something that we now are gonna have to do a lot of work to build our capacity to be able to do?
[00:06:06] Thi Kim Thu Le: Yes, it can like resonate to one concern about like how online learning or how hybrid learning look like in the future or beyond the pandemic. The pandemic accelerates online learning with institution and university all around the world, adopting different video conferencing platforms and digital classroom tunes, and it also raised a very like critical challenge for all of us
[00:06:37] for futures of online learning that is about the proliferation of datafication and automation within the educational context. I think that now teachers, neither teachers or students know about where the data, the classroom data goes, who process and for what purposes. And so we are facing a huge privacy and security issue.
[00:07:06] When more data is being generated deliberately for monitoring, for surveillance, and for evaluation purposes. So I think for the future we need to, this will lead to a critical change in educational policy, school supervision, school teachers and students, and even parents’ authority to control the classroom data.
[00:07:30] Gabriel Miller: It’s fascinating just to think about the range of issues that it opens up when we start talking about really fundamentally different ways of teaching and we've been thinking so much about just the direct human experience of that. But of course, it raises these questions about data security and data management and so much more.
[00:07:50] Terence, I want to turn to you. We've just heard from Thu a bit about the research that she undertook during the pandemic and sort of about the pandemic, about what was happening. You similar. Shifted your research focus onto questions very much about what was happening right in that moment. Can you just tell us about when you made that decision to do that research and, and what prompted you to do it?
[00:08:17] Terence Day: I think it was pretty much simultaneously with the online pivot. I received all sorts of communications from people looking for advice. People turned to me. Suddenly I was an expert. I didn't feel like an expert at all.
[00:08:31] Gabriel Miller: This is because of the work you had done before?
[00:08:32] Terence Day: Exactly
[00:08:33] Gabriel Miller: Wow. Okay.
[00:08:35] Terence Day: So I've, I, to be honest, I found it a little intimidating, and at the same time, I did see possibilities to help people.
[00:08:47] And I certainly pursued that and certainly the work that I've done since then with my colleagues in the United States, in Hong Kong. We are all, we all feel very humble and at the same time, obliged to do our best to see people through this.
[00:09:06] Gabriel Miller: Yeah and so let's make sure we really understand the work that you undertook, because I think it'll be very interesting to the people who are listening, uh.
[00:09:16] You joined a group of researchers from three different countries to look at the, as you said, the online pivot. What specifically were you looking at and what did you find?
[00:09:29] Terence Day: We weren't looking at any one thing specifically. We were looking at the entire range of activities, the way that they interacted one with another, and bearing in mind of course, that we are individuals within institutions and in different places.
[00:09:44] We felt that combining these experiences together would make for a very interesting conversation, the sort of conversation that people are perhaps having within departments or with colleagues along corridors. Now in the media parts, and hopefully carrying on into the future as well.
[00:10:06] Certainly asking people the way that, that their teaching has changed before and after the pivot is very illuminating conversation. In many cases of course, there have been no changes at all. It's some, some people have just spent the entire pandemic looking forward to being able to go back and doing what they have done well and that they've enjoyed doing and that the students have enjoyed.
[00:10:36] Other people have been looking for opportunities to improve what they've been doing before. And I think my, uh, international colleagues have certainly been interested in trying to find ways that we can improve what has happened. In part, it's a matter of the impacts of the pandemic. In other ways, it's a matter of looking for what the pandemic has revealed.
[00:11:03] So in terms of pre-existing problems. Many of them existed and were known to some people, but they weren't known necessarily to us. One of the things I found, for example, during the pandemic was that students revealed a lot about themselves. There's a perhaps a fake intimacy associated with email and with Zoom.
[00:11:26] People don't feel quite as constrained as they might do in a face to face environment. And certainly the complexity of the challenges of being a student at the present time were revealed to many others.
[00:11:39] Gabriel Miller: The three countries were Canada, the United States, and Hong Kong, and when you look at the findings, are there similarities that are very striking in terms of what the experience of the online pivot was in all three?
[00:11:57] Terence Day: And at the same time, there are differences as well, but those differences are not systematic. They reflect as much the differences of individuals as they do the reflections of the culture. I think the similarities are in terms of the experience of the difficulty.
[00:12:15] Doing this, the challenges, challenges of, for example, having students being willing to present themselves in video on lectures. And of course, in terms of a lecturing experience, you're in a room, you're standing at the podium or the front of the classroom, you can see the response of the students. You can see if they're bored, you can see if they're stimulated.
[00:12:39] You can see if they're puzzled as to what's going on, and you can respond appropriately. When you've got a bunch of names on a screen, you can't do that. So I think that those sorts of things, I think were certainly shared between us. The other thing to bear in mind, of course, is the types of institution is quite wide ranging.
[00:13:01] The experience of teaching in a community college is very different from teaching at a research intensive institution. And part of it relates, I think, to the idea of the student experience. For many people, they go to university for the experience of being a student. They go to university in order to not just get a degree, but to go and have fun with friends, make friends who are gonna be friends for the rest of their lives.
[00:13:32] There's a whole experience associated with being a student, but for many students, that was never an option anyway. Many students come in as mature students or maybe their parents, they're working full time, they don't, maybe they would like a student experience, but they're certainly, it's never on the table as an option for them.
[00:13:55] For them education is a service. So there's this distinction between education as a service versus the student experience of being in a university or a college is very significant and certainly, I think, discussing among ourselves those differences became very apparent. Now this, another aspect, of course, associated with this is the idea of university education as a commodity and the idea of getting a degree, regardless of how you do it, certainly figured into it.
[00:14:30] And certainly one of the very common experiences was the assessment issue. The fact that it became so apparent that widespread cheating was going on and certainly that was shown in terms of the homework help sites, [inaudible] and similar types of site. Suddenly their subscriptions mushroomed as a consequence of all this.
[00:14:56] Gabriel Miller: I wanna pick up on this point you made earlier in your comments, and I'm gonna turn to Thu on this, this idea that there was what we learned from doing new things during the pandemic, but then there was also what we learned because of what the pandemic revealed about the world that we were already living in.
[00:15:15] And it really resonates, I think, with a lot of people. The pandemic has caused an acceleration, as you said, of online learning, but it's also caused reflection on in-person learning and what makes it special or unique. Let's start with in person. What have you learned from the past couple of years about what makes for effective in-person teaching?
[00:15:45] Thi Kim Thu Le: For in-person teaching,
[00:15:47] I think what makes us very effective is the student and teacher interaction and engagement. So for in an in-person learning environment, usually student are involved in different interactive and collaborative learning activities, and they need a lot of essential skill to complete the activity for their academic success.
[00:16:50] And I also think for like both in person or online learning, uh, environment, the teacher should be facilitators only, who like present socially and academically, giving prompt feedback and supports whenever their needs, uh, the student needs in order for the, in other words, we give the student empowerment in order to control their own learning process.
[00:16:49] Gabriel Miller: And if I understand what you're saying properly, you're saying that's something that's common to both forms of instruction, whether it's remote or in person. That role of the teacher as a learning facilitator is really key.
[00:17:02] Thi Kim Thu Le: So, but for the online learning communities, the next step should be placed on student readiness to, for the use of technology in their study.
[00:17:12] Emphasizing their technology skill. So that will be like the biggest differences between online and traditional classroom.
[00:17:19] Gabriel Miller: The fact that there's really technical skills that people need to have in order to be effective online. So Terence, I'm really interested in that and it's interesting to me to hear about the things that are common to the different forms of education, but also this point that Thu is raising.
[00:17:38] Were you struck by the same, that technical capacity, technical ability was suddenly critical to the ability of instructors to be, to do their jobs well?
[00:17:51] Terence Day: I think the differences between online and face-to-face instruction are not perhaps as great as is commonly believed. Certainly the experience I know that Bill Doolittle at the University of Texas in Austin has made observations that the faculty who are the most popular
[00:18:16] in the online classes, were the same faculty who are popular in the face to face classes, and I think it comes down, I think it comes down to the idea of connection between the student and the prof.
[00:18:30] Gabriel Miller: And in your experience, what is it that determines someone's ability to, to establish that connection?
[00:18:39] Cause what it, what you're saying is it's not actually about the medium, is it about, is it just about the priority that people place on that? Is it about a personal style? Is it about skills they learn or is it all of the above?
[00:18:52] Terence Day: Probably all of the above. I think that most faculty care about their students.
[00:19:03] I think it's also true that the way they show they care varies a lot from one prof to another. And perhaps, for example, you know, show that they care about the students by presenting very challenging problems to them. It's going to serve them well in future careers, but that's not something which is widely appreciated by students being given problems, which are almost impossible to solve.
[00:19:30] So I think that if one can lead students along, I think the point that Thu was making is really important: this idea of essentially social constructivism, the idea of moving away from the idea of just a student being in charge of their education towards being part of a group of students who work towards their education is certainly a very important one.
[00:19:58] Gabriel Miller: Thu, you've spoken about some of the ways that, that teach some of the skills and some of the knowledge that need to be brought to bear in, in both forms, but also specifically online. What are your thoughts on how the university and our institutions need to change now? Based on what we've learned and how they structure themselves, how they allocate resources, what changes do you see in the university itself that need to come?
[00:20:32] Thi Kim Thu Le: I think like for online learning, first, the administrations or the universities management should provide, like help prepare the best digital and technological infrastructure for a smooth transition. And then I think they should have like, uh, have more connection, uh, like
[00:20:56] Dr. Terence already mentioned with the, both the student and the teachers. Listen to the student more about their struggles during online classes, because I want to talk a little bit about a typical example of the datafication in online teaching. So there is a story about a female student who were pregnant and she was in her ninth month and she takes, she took the online exams.
[00:21:28] But because of the online proctoring tunes, the student cannot move their eyes away from the screen during the online exam. And then she had to finish that exams, she came to the hospital for giving birth, and then she took the second exam in the hospital. So that cannot happen for the traditional classroom.
[00:21:55] So in that situation, for example, the student, the teacher in the traditional classroom will stop everything and support that student. But for online, the student had a problem and no one's there for support, for help, and they, she's received no, like, support from the school because it's just online. So I think in this situation, there should be more connection from the school and the teacher to the students.
[00:22:25] Gabriel Miller: I understand. Terrence, same question to you what changes do you feel we need to see within the university and our higher education system generally, in light of what we've learned from online learning during the pandemic?
[00:22:40] Terence Day: I think there's been a major trend in recent years towards more management in university, moving away from the university administrators towards perhaps, a more focused management objectives.
[00:22:55] And the analogy of software made of course is herding cats in terms of faculty. But I think that the, one of the terms that was used during the online pivot, of course, was administrative overreach. There was a sense sometimes among some faculty that the management or administration were trying to control too much, showing people how they should be teaching and [...]
[00:23:24] I think that that trend is likely to continue, but hopefully it will be significantly tempered by the compassion of faculty. And I think that they, the compassionate aspects that Thu has mentioned I think are really important. And I'm not quite sure how you include that in, in this precision management in terms of what's going on right now.
[00:23:52] Gabriel Miller: That's some striking examples. And at the same time, I think what I've heard in the conversation is a lot of optimism about the potential for these tools and their ability to be used, and in fact, frankly, a more optimistic conversation than maybe I was expecting about their ability to maintain a relationship between professor and student, between teacher and student.
[00:24:12] I'm wondering, do any examples for you, big or small, stand out as kind of moments of success during the past couple of years? Where in the face of this big challenge, in the face of all of this change, someone was able to connect or something was able to get done through the use of a new, uh, tool, a new mechanism.
[00:24:37] And that allowed you to fulfill your role as a researcher, as a teacher. Is there any, what are the examples that stand out to you when you think about the successes of the past couple of years?
[00:24:45] Thi Kim Thu Le: So, for me as a teacher, I think the successful, like online teaching is when all the students participate and show their interest to the lesson.
[00:24:58] So there was a moment during the pandemic when I asked a question and all of them raise hands. And it was so fun, was so great when I see all the, like the icon for raising hand in my online classroom, maybe Dr. Terence here experience some other silent moments when the student turn off the camera and nobody says anything when we ask a question.
[00:25:25] So for me, when all the students participate and raise hands during my lesson is a successful online teaching. And in order to do that, I usually have some like prompt questions, uh, tasks during the online it means like students, uh, have no idea about what I will ask, or like they don't have time to prepare, for example, the presentation at home, but I put them into the group and prepare for the presentation.
[00:25:54] They have to collaborate, they have to work together to make decisions to decide who prepares the slide. Who look for visual arts, who will be the speaker, etc. And they are really interested in the group work, the group activities.
[00:26:13] Gabriel Miller: Terrific. And Terence, what are your examples?
[00:26:14] Terence Day: I think the use of the chat functions in the, uh, learning management systems really showed the levels of student engagement, and that was certainly really important for me.
[00:26:28] There were essentially two groups of students, students who participated live face to face, and students who perhaps the timing of the lectures wasn't convenient, so they would be watching recordings later on, but certainly the, the live online lectures had a lot of chat functions in them. Another area of experimentation that seemed to work very well was the use of online field work. I teach geography, and taking students out
[00:26:56] is something we do on a regular basis. That wasn't really an option. However, I was able to redesign a lot of the labs and the students went out on their own and made observations. For example, in terms of measuring the infiltration of water into the soil. I had them cutting up tin cans and driving them into the soil and in their backyard, pouring water into these things.
[00:27:18] But the students found a lot of that stuff was a lot of fun. I found that, of course, I required them to document that they'd done it, so they were producing videos of themselves having done this, and a lot of them had fun with those videos. So that for me was a really positive experience associated with all this.
[00:27:39] Gabriel Miller: When you think about all of these changes that are happening and about, it's like a blossoming of the potential for the use of these tools, what do you imagine the future of higher education will look like? How is it gonna change if we harness this potential in the right way?
[00:27:59] Thi Kim Thu Le: I can see that after the Covid 19, online education is now a part of the next generation education system because the schools, the students, teachers are getting used to the new normal mode of teaching and learning, and
[00:28:17] also, many students, universities and organizations are taking advantage of this new way to retrain and re-educate their employees and manage business operations virtually as this mode of operation has provided like an opportunity to reduce operational costs. Another scenario I can see for the futures of like online education is that it can be very popular and successful in some rural and semi-urban areas.
[00:28:52] So during the Covid 19 they, after the Covid 19, there is a high growth in the demand of the use of mobile and computer bay internet technology for teaching and learning in this area. And I believe that this demand will be like continuously expanding more in the future. So remote learning now can be like very popular in remote areas.
[00:29:24] Gabriel Miller: Terence, it certainly feels like what I'm hearing in the conversation is that, what this is adding to higher education is greater than what it's subtracting. Is that how you feel and what does the future look like to you?
[00:29:38] Terence Day: Entirely agree with Thu. I think that online education is expanding, and at the same time it was expanding prior to Covid as well. I think what's happened is that more students who had previously not enjoyed online education found that new styles of online education do in fact work for them. So I think that really what we're looking at is emerging of the two approaches.
[00:30:15] I'm not sure that old style online education, perhaps it will continue, but not see significant growth. What will see significant growth is online education that involves perhaps more interaction between a professor and a student, so a lot more synchronous types of online education, and at the same time, I think face-to-face classes have already seen a massive expansion of the use of online technologies in particular.
[00:30:40] Of course, the way that we use a learning management system has completely changed. Before it was a dumping ground for a few PowerPoints perhaps. Now, many cases, assignments are being submitted online, plagiarism detection is being implemented online. I think that this merging is creating some unusual situations.
[00:31:05] One of the things, for example, that really surprised me during the online pivot was the fact that students were getting together as a group on campus to watch online lectures and this merging of what's going on, I think is one of the really significant aspects of what is happening. And at the same time, as I said, it's something which was happening before anyway, but it's been accelerated by the pandemic.
[00:31:36] Now, what I find really interesting is the fact that I don't see, frankly, a lot of leadership going on within the administrations. I find that very surprising. Most of the innovation that I've seen going on has been by faculty. And different faculty responding different ways, but certainly many faculty are finding very innovative ways of presenting their subject to the students now.
[00:32:07] Gabriel Miller: Well, I think that brings us to a final question for both of you. As Terrence was saying, there's questions about how you lead these institutions into the future. Thinking about this whole conversation, thinking about parents and students and administrators and faculty, what message would you wanna leave with people about what's changing in higher education and what we need to know for the future?
[00:32:37] Terence Day: I think the real learning here for both faculty and for students is that they have choices. Those choices have significantly broadened since the online pivot. They have also become, I think, more apparent to people as a result of the online pivot.
[00:32:52] Thi Kim Thu Le: For me, like one thing I learned from the past two and a half year is like the control and the equal control amongst the school, the students, and the teachers.
[00:33:05] Like what I have shared, like the empowerment of the student in order to design not only what they want to learn, but also, like, how they manage their own learning process as well. So there should be more connection, more compassion from the school and the student to the school and teacher to the student.
[00:33:36] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to The Big Thinking Podcast and to our guests, Dr. Terence Day, adjunct professor of geography at Simon Fraser University and Thi Kim Thu Le, PhD candidate in educational studies at the University of Windsor. I also want to thank our friends at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council whose support helps make this podcast possible.
[00:33:59] Finally, thank you to Cited Media for their support in producing the Big Thinking Podcast. Follow us for more episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and Google Podcast. A la prochaine.