Finding Balance

My context is under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization that serves refugees such as displaced peoples from war torn places such as Ukraine. In addition, we serve newcomers to Canada who arrive under our skilled workers visa program and who have sacrificed their careers, their homes, and family to try to make a better life in Canada, all the while working as dishwashers and cooks to pay the bills as they try to learn the English and skills they will need to survive here. Learning soft skills and hard skills to make it through this three-to-six-year quest with a pathway to residency and hopefully citizenship, is not easy. After the Covid-19 pandemic, our learners participate in a HyFlex learning model.

Teaching presence in my context is especially important due to the competing cultural expectations that students bring to the classroom as well as students’ understanding of the role that technology plays. First, I must facilitate discourse that reinforces the idea that learning in a digital environment is real learning. Students’ finesse with technology is sometimes skilled but at times rudimentary and so I must provide a safe space for them to explore and feel good about making mistakes. I try to do this through encouragement and setting a climate of low stakes playfulness. Very often I encounter a classroom where the learners have little or nothing in common, so it is up to me to be the facilitator to seek areas of agreement to reach consensus when possible. I can do this by establishing time parameters and continuing to learn and update my effectiveness with technology as it is ever-changing. One of the most difficult things is establishing netiquette. For instance, many learners are in a situation where they cannot afford a computer, or a babysitter so there can be many interruptions and unexpected situations yet as a facilitator I have to balance being flexible but respecting other learners needs and wishes.

Two spheres that I fear I have not been successful at, and I am still struggling to find a way to facilitate better are in the spheres of social presence and cognitive presence. These spheres are impacted by students who do not turn on their cameras or participate. My organization does not allow us to make any policies regarding cameras being on or cameras being off. Learners are permitted to make their own decisions. Much of the work we do involves multilateral communication so when students log on to class and they do not turn on their cameras it can make other students uncomfortable and impact their opportunities for optimal learning. In student surveys, other students have said it puts them at unease and that they do not enjoy having these “phantom classmates.” My only strategy for this has been to call on them from time to time and to ask students to turn on their cameras on at the beginning of class even if it is just for a moment. I have yet to figure out how to mitigate this conundrum. My hands are tied now until our board makes a final decision. If Professor Lalonde or my fellow classmates have any facilitation strategies or insights please let me know.

Clint Lalonde. (2020, August 23). Facilitation in a Community of Inquiry [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved September 12, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv1bUZv5PLs&t=2s

Shea, P., Alexandra M., P., & Pelz, W. E. (2019). A FOLLOW-UP INVESTIGATION OF “TEACHING PRESENCE” IN THE SUNY LEARNING NETWORK. Online Learning, 7(2). https://doi.org/10.24059/OLJ.V7I2.1856

4 thoughts on “Finding Balance

  1. Thank you for this Sam! As I started to read your context, I wondered how you might be learning from your students, and that’s exactly where you went with this post. As Bull (2013) said, we are also co-learners. Have you found any successful connection between learning from the students’ situations and what Boettcher (n.d.) talked about when they recommended supportiveness and opening up with a personal anecdote?

    1. Thank you Corrie for taking the time to respond to my post. I rely heavily on personal anecdotes in the classroom. I find that they can enhance what I call the Halo Effect which is when during the first few weeks, some extra outreach and personal interaction can really reinforce performance and participation down the road for the rest of the course. One thing I have had to learn is that as our organization has had to shift online, it was not to take things too personally if a student was not participating. It rarely had anything to do with my lessons and more to do with the challenges of our present realities, such as the pandemic, layoffs, or family issues. So I find that stories can sometimes get that feeling of connection and get those cameras on! I also try to provide many means of communication as sometimes students are not comfortable with just one platform or means.

      Sam

  2. Hi Sam,
    What a challenge indeed! Having a class full of varying expectations from students can be very hard to moderate, and then add a language or cultural barrier on top of that! The lack of social presence you are getting from the students can also present a challenge for you to connect with the learners as their facilitator. Do you feel this impacts your ability to connect with them as well?

  3. Thanks for sharing your context and your conundrums. It sounds like there complex layers in your learning environment and with your learners to navigate. I do have question about your context and your learner’s context. It sounds like they are coming to your program with education and skills already. Do they come to your program in cohorts or individuals are moving in and out of the program?

    It sounds like your learners are obligated to be in your program and this is tied to their ability to stay in the country. Is that true? If so, it is no wonder that creating cognitive presence is difficult. Anderson (2017) notes the artificiality of education creates challenges in creating cognitive presence and this would apply here wouldn’t it? I know for myself and for my own students the drive to learn is challenged when the only reason to take part is to legitimize us to some external and abstract audience. If the reason for being part of a learning community is already artificially imposed we are starting from a place of deficit. It’s not the cameras. It’s the absurdity of the situation. I mean it’s absurd right? I took a stats 100 level course at BCIT many years ago and you know who was learning alongside me? A professor of statistics from Columbia. Just there to work his way up to teaching again in post secondary in Canada, where he happened to find himself because he was displaced from his own country. He had a Phd in statistics. These types of situations play out in classrooms all over Canada right now. They are absurd.

    My students, who are sometimes in my program to meet the requirements of a long term plan for permanent residency in Canada, are often not bought in to being in my class in the ways that matter for learning. They are checking a box imposed by Canadian immigration. To counteract these artificial conditions I try to create projects that are real, that impact a community outside of the classroom in positive ways and require interdependency for the learners. I also attempt to get them to design their own learning outcomes and goals within the subject matter and I inject a lot of what I like to call social nonsense in my classes because as you experience, we have multiple cultures represented and this allows us to laugh together and then build up to being able to work together.
    All that to say that I suspect policies about cameras are not the solution. It’s likely just adding another layer of control to the student’s lives that will move them farther away from your learning encounters instead of towards them in authentic ways.

    Reference:
    Anderson, T. (2017). How communities of inquiry drive teaching and learning in the digital age. Contact North Tools and Trends. https://teachonline.ca/tools-trends/how-communities-inquiry-drive-teaching-and-learning-digital-age

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