‘As though we’re all in the same room’: How two U of T professors built a better remote learning experience

Donna Orwin, a professor of Russian literature, says the small number of students sitting in her physically distanced classroom this fall will be able to see and talk with students who participate online (photo by Johnny Guatto)

When class starts at the University of Toronto the week of Sept. 7, Joseph Wong and Donna Orwin will be ready. 

The two professors have several decades of combined experience teaching at the post-secondary level, but they nevertheless spent much of the summer in full-on learning mode.

The subject: How to enhance the learning experience for their students in the fall semester – the first in the COVID-19 era. Specifically, the goal was how to create an engaging “dual delivery” format to teach students who will participate online alongside those who be sitting – physically distanced, wearing masks – in a mostly empty classroom. 

“We learned a lot in the spring when we all had to use online technology and just try to get to the end of the term,” says Wong, a professor in the department of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science and Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. 

“We all tried hard and U of T was remarkable in moving 6,000 courses to remote delivery over the course of a weekend. But this fall students should be expecting a much better learning experience.”

Wong and Orwin are just two of the hundreds of U of T professors who are retooling their courses for this fall as part of U of T’s gradual and safe return to campus. More than 90 per cent of undergraduate courses give students the option of studying online and most of these courses will be offered online only.

To become more adept at leading an online seminar, Wong offered several “bonus” seminars this summer so he could practice. 

“I asked the Munk School to send out a note to students saying that I would be doing a bonus seminar online on a certain day,” he says. “I gave them a pre-read on the topic and said the first nine students to sign up can be in the seminar.”

Wong says he limited the seminar’s size to nine in order to form a three-by-three grid on his computer screen. “I wanted to be able to see everyone,” he says.  “From there I went to 16 for a four-by-four grid and I just practised. I wanted to learn how to use the chat function, how to maintain eye contact. 

“Now, I feel like I have quite a bit of practice under my belt.” 

Wong also practised with the 25 people on his research team – all while still attending to his new role as U of T’s interim vice-president, international. 

Orwin, on the other hand, had never taught online before. The professor of Russian literature and chair of the department of Slavic languages and literatures in the Faculty of Arts & Science says she emerged from her experience in the spring semester ready to prepare thoroughly for the fall term – especially given the fact many students were interested in attending her “Russia at War” first-year seminar in-person. 

She will have 14 students in that seminar, eight of them in room 101 in Teefy Hall at St. Michael’s College and six participating online. 

Professor Donna Orwin’s physically distanced classroom will have an external webcam and microphone. Students sitting in the physically distanced classroom will be able to see and talk with the students online via their laptops (photo by Johnny Guatto)

“I want everyone in this seminar to be able to participate fully and for it to be as if we are all sitting together,” says Orwin, a noted expert on Leo Tolstoy who is affiliated with the Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. “So, I’ve planned the in-person and online group experience together.”

Using their laptops, students sitting in the physically distanced classroom will be able to see and talk with the students online. Orwin will also have a webcam to capture the entire room and an external microphone will make sure voices are amplified. 

“The camera will be on a tripod so I can move it around if I want to show a PowerPoint presentation,” she says. “While I’m talking, I’ll have the camera facing me and while the students are talking, the camera will be on them. In that way, our online people will be working together with the people in the room.”

Orwin’s students will have a lot to discuss – the seminar covers centuries of Russian war and how it is expressed in literature and other artistic forms. 

“We’ll be talking about the different genres, watching film and reading poetry, short stories, novels, discussing war itself in Russia and beyond,” she says. “It’s an important topic – Russia is a country that loves peace, but is almost continuously at war, so we’ll explore why that is.”

She adds that it’s important to make sure students, particularly those in their first year, feel like they’re part of the broader U of T community.

“These students are coming from high school to university for the first time,” she says. “Most of their other courses will be online and I want to give them an in-class experience. I want them to get to know each other and to get to know me. These first-year seminars are an opportunity for first-year students to be part of an academic community.”

For Wong’s Munk One first year “Global Innovation” class, he will have 15 students physically distanced in a room in the Canadiana Gallery building, which normally seats 64. Another 10 students will participate remotely. Drop-down microphones will be placed throughout the room to compensate for voices muffled through masks. 

Professor Joseph Wong’s Munk One class on global innovation will be held in a room equipped with drop-down microphones, which are intended to compensate for voices muffled through masks (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

“The students will be on three screens around the room,” says Wong. “The configuration will ensure that, no matter if they’re on screen or in the classroom, they will be able to see each other clearly.  I want to make it as though we are all in the same room. 

“The aim is to run the seminar as we have in the past. There will be a fair amount of flexibility, and we’ll be learning as we go. All the students I’ve spoken with are very excited about it. And they recognize that things might not be perfect from day one.”

Wong is also the founder of the REACH Alliance, where about 25 students travel the world annually to understand poverty and social services in underserved communities. While REACH will not be able to send students abroad this year, Wong has nevertheless found a way to inject an international flavour into the global innovation seminar. 

“I’ve added a new component to this course called a global classroom module,” he says. “Our seminar will be connected with a class with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico City. We’re going to do a three-class module on COVID-19 and inequality. So, the U of T students, in the room and online, will be working with Mexican students on a variety of creative projects around the topic.” 

For two hours each week, the Toronto and Mexico City classes will be connected through technology. 

“That’s an exciting component where our students have an opportunity to learn by talking to the Mexican students using the remote platforms,” he says. “The pandemic has been awful but technology and a willingness to connect with each other around the world is enabling us to do things I have certainly never done before.”

Joseph Wong says students in his global innovation seminar will be connected with a class at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico City as part of a three-class module on COVID-19 and inequality (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Preparing for the “synchronous” method of teaching – in-person and online together – has taken time and financial support, Wong says. He points out that from the moment students shifted to learning remotely in March, faculty and staff across the university were analyzing what worked and planning for fall. 

“It’s not just about turning on Zoom; we did that in the spring. The experience students will have in the fall will be much different,” Wong says. “The infrastructure and reconfigurations are quite extensive.  People are working very hard. 

“We’ve put a huge amount of work into this and I think the students will find it very exciting.”

For Orwin, redesigning the way she delivers the class was critical to ensure “as much as possible, they can all take part in the discussion, those in the physical room and those online, as one group.”

In a normal year, she says, a first-year seminar can be an important part of “learning how to be independent thinkers and learning how to discuss their ideas with one another.” In a pandemic year, it’s all the more important.

“That’s what university is about.”