A Program Offered in Blended Learning… By Choice! – Creating a Feeling of “Being There” in the Context of Distance Learning
In 2020, while many programs turned to distance or blended learning out of obligation, we, teachers in the new Paralegal Technology program at Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles, did it by choice. Our program is in its 2nd year of existence and it was planned from the beginning that, from this year on, it would be offered online. We are extremely satisfied with how the first semester unfolded and very optimistic about the future.
We always seek to create a feeling of “being there” in our classes, even when taken online. For that reason, we have considered interaction a priority, and that has been the key to our success. The students are very involved in their learning and have developed a remarkable sense of community.
Why offer the courses online?
Last year, in 2019-2020, our first small cohort of students in the program took the course in a blended learning format where there was an alternation between asynchronous classes and in-person classes.
When we started, we had planned to offer blended dual-mode learning courses this year. We wanted:
- the class to sometimes take place synchronously and that the students may choose to attend in person or online
- other content that would be studied asynchronously
In 2020-2021, our cohort of first-year students is made up of 35 students, divided into 2 groups.
The needs of the students
In our region where population density is low, our students sometimes have to drive long distances to get to the campus. Some students from Bas-Saint-Laurent or other neighbouring regions might also want to take the course, which is not offered in their region.
Moreover, the Paralegal Technology program is interesting for a wide variety of students, including students who are not fresh out of high school. Among our students, we have:
- people going back to school while working full-time
An online formula is very interesting for students who are far away as well as for those who have limited availability.
Courses given entirely online during a pandemic
At the beginning of the semester, some students had to attend the classes in person, but changed their minds because of the pandemic. Indeed, because of the pandemic, the students can take the general education courses online, which was not the plan, initially. Then, the students who might have wanted to take the course in person simply because they already were on campus were not in the same situation. Because of the health situation, we were ultimately unable to offer the courses in person, but that did not come as a shock.
No sacrifices to make; on the contrary!
If we chose, right from the beginning, to allow the students to take their courses remotely, it is to respond to their “practical” needs. However, there was never a question of sacrificing the pedagogical quality of our courses, on the contrary! Our intent always was that the chosen formula enriched our courses.
Modality of the courses
From the start of the semester, the student knows the lessons that will be synchronous and the activities to complete asynchronously. To choose the modality of a lesson (synchronous or asynchronous), we first think of the pedagogical imperatives (content to see, associated objectives).
For example, in Josianne’s course, the 3 or 4 first sessions of the course were all offered in a virtual classroom (on Zoom), synchronously. But, later in the semester, the students could spend a week without seeing one another in real time and instead complete asynchronous activities.
The more the student will progress in their journey and become autonomous, the more important the asynchronous portions will become.
We bet a lot on active learning, so the synchronous sessions are very profitable for the students and us! When we choose to give a synchronous class, it is to allow students to interact, share, complete collaborative activities.
We often have the students work in teams during synchronous sessions. We like to divide the students in teams randomly. This way, they get an opportunity to work with all of their peers.
We favour asynchronous lessons when we plan to do activities that do not require interaction. For example, for our lectures, we record video lessons.
Strong bonds with our students and between our students
Even if they are students from all across the province, they have managed to become friends with one another.
Students have told us that they were surprised to have created, online, such strong bonds with their classmates and to have felt so close to their teachers.
Creating such a sense of community while teaching online is a challenge, but we have succeeded!
The “doors” of our digital offices are wide open for our students and they know it. They do not hesitate to make appointments for video calls.
We encourage the students to interact on the class forums (on Teams) and they do. The students ask each other questions and share resources. The exchanges are alive between the lessons: the students want to stay connected to one another.
Our initial game plan was to have the 3rd week of class in person, for all students. Exceptionally, they would have all come onto the campus to meet one another in person and create bonds. Because of the pandemic, that did not happen.
We still had special pedagogical activities during the 3rd week of class (virtual visits of work environments, and interviews with legal professionals). We have organized many social activities online (escape rooms, for example) and the students even organized a virtual happy hour. The “Semaine d’intégration à l’environnement juridique” was a great success!
While many teachers across the province were forced to switch to online teaching without any preparation, we had the chance, in 2019, to plan our approach and to complete some training. Our college offered us some release time for our training. It was very useful.
We request that the students turn on their cameras during synchronous lessons. In our opinion, this fosters exchanges and discussions. Sometimes, a student’s cat crosses our screens. Another time, a student’s child attends the class on their mother’s knees. We see those as opportunities to bond with our students.
Our college chose to create small student groups: our 35 first-year students are divided into 2 groups. The literature shows that smaller groups are better for teaching at a distance. We can confirm that it works very well for us!
The fact remains that online teaching (just as in-person teaching) requires a good capacity to adapt. It is important to listen to the needs of the students. Their learnings will benefit from it!