An op-ed by Dr. Kathy Darvesh, Acting Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre and Online Learning at MSVU, as originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

This debate has been raging for many months on social media, talk shows and news programs. I’ve heard the concerns of instructors who worry about how successful their students will be in the online environment … of parents who say their child feels lost in the Zoom room … and of students themselves, who say they miss the social interaction of the classroom and campus.

Having been both a teacher and administrator in online learning, I know well its power when done with skill and with intention.

I’ve been teaching chemistry at Mount Saint Vincent University since 1989 and have offered my students the option to participate remotely for nearly a decade. It was they who originally asked for the option to participate remotely — some of them had long commutes to get back home for the weekend and their bus or train schedules would mean they either had to miss their Friday class, or miss out on going home.

Our virtual classroom software allowed for the option of participating in person or remotely. The remote option was first offered Fridays only, then extended to stormy days. Meanwhile, requests for the remote option increased to the point where it was easier to offer it for every class. It was entirely student-driven. So much for students not wanting remote learning!

My journey in online teaching started with recording the class so my students could view it at their convenience. That solved one issue, but created another: I needed to find a way to get students engaged with the material, with each other, and with me. Passively viewing a pre-recorded class would not be enough.

Fortunately, the team at MSVU has almost 40 years’ experience delivering what used to be called “distance” classes. The university has been trailblazing in its pursuit of innovative ways to deliver courses and remove barriers to post-secondary education. We are leaders in designing online courses that incorporate all sorts of ways to keep students engaged. There is also faculty development support to assist with how to use the technology in a way that makes pedagogical sense. When I teach live in this online environment, sometimes I’m not even aware of the technology. It just melts away and I feel as if I’m right there with my students, in person.

I see them working on their labs and chatting with each other. They can talk to me either through the microphone or by sending me a message. They send me “selfies” with their kitchen chemistry experiments, along with their completed lab reports.

In fact, some students do better in this online model than in the traditional classroom. A student who might have been shy about raising their hand and asking a question in front of other students can take the time to formulate their thought, put it in writing, and send it in via chat. Students who might be distracted in a live class can tune in from an environment they create, that works for them. Students with accessibility issues may sometimes find they’re better accommodated through the online class, given that they have more control of their learning environment. Students also save on commuting time.

“But what about the student/prof relationship?” many will ask. “Can that happen through a screen?”

The short answer is yes — by this point in the pandemic, many of us have experienced connection through a screen, both personally and professionally.

Even though I couldn’t be with my students in person during the pandemic, our virtual classroom and other options, such as email and online office hours, allowed me to have one-on-one time with any student who wanted it, made me feel close to them and helped me relate to them as individuals and support their learning.

I’m not suggesting online learning could or should replace face-to-face classes in all cases, but I invite you to perform a thought experiment. If you were to imagine how best to help students learn something new, would you propose to march dozens of them into a classroom, then have an instructor stand at the front of that classroom and write on the board for an hour while the students quietly copy down what’s written? “Ridiculous!” you’d say. And yet we accept that scenario as an established method of learning.

“But that’s not the ideal way to learn face to face!” you’d also say. “Face-to-face classes should include discussion, and activities, and engagement!” Agreed. The chalk and the board are pieces of technology. So are the online learning management system and the virtual classroom software. The technology does not determine whether the learning is effective; what happens in the real or virtual classroom does, and that includes having a committed instructor who is passionate about their students’ learning.

Right now, instructors are thinking carefully about their teaching style in the online environment, and my fervent hope is that once we get through this — and get through this we will — all of these efforts will leave our instructors with some new tools and strategies to take to the real and virtual classroom in future years.

Designing and creating the learning activities for an engaging, dynamic online class can take up to a year. Did instructors have the time to prepare fully developed online courses back in March? No. With only a few days’ notice, instructors all across the country worked to pivot rapidly to online delivery. And many have worked tirelessly this summer to condense the online course development process in time for fall.

The possibilities — and capabilities — of online learning have improved dramatically, and quickly. Universities in general, and MSVU in particular, have invested considerable resources in their learning platforms and in personnel to support online learning. The approach to designing online courses and the faculty development and platform support for online learning at MSVU today represent a considerable improvement over what was offered even a few years ago. While the convenience of remote learning was always a plus with students who wanted that option, that convenience is now enhanced by a powerful blend of technology and pedagogy.

Let’s not be overly critical of any imperfections in the final product, or base our conclusions about online learning on what happened back in March. Similarly, I’d ask that you not base your thinking about online courses on one you took many years ago.

So, in answer to the question I started with, “Can online learning be as effective as face-to-face learning?” my answer is a resounding yes. With careful attention to course design, a well-supported platform, a committed instructor, and a student who is a seeker of knowledge, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. And it’s wonderful.