By Elaine Smith
The pandemic lockdown has brought new opportunities in teaching and learning and the student experience, including how technology can be used to enhance learning, and questions about who governs the data. Assistant Professor Sarah Rotz from the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change ponders the pros and cons of technology.
Although Sarah Rotz has only been teaching at York University for three years, two of those years included the pandemic lockdown, so she has seen and experienced the changes and benefits in teaching and learning experience.
“Now that we’ve experienced remote teaching using digital technology and tools, there is definitely a movement toward using Zoom and eClass more intensively,” said Rotz, an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC). “I’m noticing more opportunities for creative ways of approaching teaching and learning in terms of networking and collaborations between students, professors and community members through Zoom. It’s really amazing.
“During the pandemic, I had guest speakers from all over the world visit my classes virtually, and I want to keep doing that. We’ve had some wonderful class discussions over Zoom that we never could have had physically given the time and cost of bringing the speakers to campus.”
In her work in the social sciences, Rotz sees that technology can be a useful tool for facilitating her pedagogical goals.
“I want to support and encourage intellectual curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, accountability and mutual respect and trust,” Rotz says. “Technology can help me on that journey. I use polls and surveys in the online space and having the ability to obtain anonymous responses is really great. I’ve been able to facilitate creativity in online classes; it just might look a bit different.”
Rotz plans to use some mixture of online and in-person teaching in the future, using in-person activities to build community and connections, but also providing online opportunities to save students time. She likes the flexibility that online opportunities offer, noting “I had a higher attendance rate in all of my online classes – especially the large lecture classes – than in person, especially for students who are working a number of jobs and undergraduates with long travel times and high commuting costs.”
Feedback from her surveys indicated that her students enjoyed having recorded lectures that they could plug into before or after work. Rotz also liked the opportunity it offered for her to incorporate popular media or video into the class.
As she ponders her own teaching, Rotz has given a lot of thought to assessment and has read about the various methods in use, from the traditional to the more flexible.
“I want the type of assessment I use to fit within my goals for trust and accountability,” Rotz said. “I want to support students in their learning and I want them to know what is expected of them: why they are doing particular assignments and what the point of them is. I work with them to build consensus around their assignments and we discuss different project options that show their mastery of the material, such as an infographic or a video. We may take a poll or vote and they might have two or three options. Engaging students is pretty important in terms of building accountability with one another and they feel more invested afterward.”
These assignments often give students the opportunity to experiment with media/approaches they might not have tried previously, “building skills that are useful in various technological contexts and into the future,” Rotz noted.
In terms of the other skills she believes her students will need as they look toward their futures, Rotz points to critical thinking skills and communications skills, whether verbal, written or visual communication is required.
“You can build skills like this and use them in various technical contexts and into the future,” she said. “When it comes to critical thinking, I want students to consider what the motivation for a process is, what the ethical and moral considerations are and who is affected and who benefits. All of these are questions that are important in the social sciences and students should be able to think things through.
“Once they’ve done that, they need to be able to communicate their thoughts back to an audience in various ways and use their verbal skills to speak about a complex issue. I want to nurture their curiosity and creativity; those are things that last.”
Rotz says it’s hard to predict how the classroom of the future will look, but she believes there must be thought given to how technology is used.
“I’m happy to use it to the extent that it supports our work and builds collaboration,” she said, “but there are lots of issues about the politics of technology and questions about where our data goes and who administers it. There is a push toward corporatization of the technology space and we can’t take these things lightly as an institution. We have a responsibility.”