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Editor’s Note: This story was based on conversations from mid-April.

“Well, what I’m discovering is that there’s no substitute for spirit.”

And that spirit of learning and enquiry comes across, even virtually, during a pandemic, according to Pearson College UWC faculty member Dr. Paul Faber.

“So, you can be computer savvy and have all the cool little gadgets but I think what it still comes down to is that we are back to the spirit of inquiry, the spirit of conversation and the spirit of collegiality – of helping other people.”

Faber is part of the cadre of Pearson faculty who quickly switched gears, metaphorically speaking, from teaching in Pearson’s classrooms, labs and great outdoors to educating young scholars now located in nearly 200 separate “classrooms” around the world.

Faber mused that in the early days of the COVID-19 transformation to full online learning he initially found it a challenge to cultivate that spirit.

“It’s like we’re trying to cultivate it in space. I was just saying to my students that when you’re in a classroom and you ask a question often there’s this long silence and everybody kind of looks down and looks around and you know…but here (in the virtual classroom) that silence is exponentially silent. It’s the silence of space, absolutely dead quiet.

“And that’s a strange thing to navigate, but then again…if you’ve got spirit that starts to come through and we can explore ways to help get everyone emotionally invested in ‘space.’”

Faber spoke during a “virtual coffee break” in the second week of April – back when the new normal really was new. He and his faculty colleagues – each bringing a varying degree of experience and comfort with online learning and education — all worked hard to navigate the practical as well as the psychological challenges presented by the coronavirus-driven shift.

Faber, for example, is teaching 72 English students. “I’ve divided them into two blocks with synchronous classes and asynchronous classes. I have a synchronous class on Monday afternoons and Tuesday mornings per week where we talk live.”

Later in the week, asynchronous classes, where a faculty member posts a recording or assigns a task that does not require direct “classroom” supervision, makes up the second “formal” class. On top of that, faculty have created office hours at different points during the week to accommodate students in different time zones.

“I’m available in the calendar and people can come and just talk as a group and then I also have something called Calendly (an online calendar scheduler) so that students who want to speak to me privately can make an appointment.”

Emily Coolidge, Dean of Studies worked closely with, among others, Dean of Studies Julia Clark and VP of Education and Programming Heather Gross to create schedules, manage expectations and encourage faculty to be creative and innovative in how they adapted their teaching styles. She  pointed to how the shift in learning perspective initially affected students.

“(On a typical pre-pandemic day,) students were in classes 8:30 am to 2:30 pm, then were in activities till five and then they had evenings to catch up on schoolwork or complete assignments. Students were really in receiving mode and they had daily interaction with teachers to remind them about what needed to be done:  ’Oh yeah, there’s my philosophy teacher — I have a philosophy assignment.’

“Now for our young adults it’s really challenging their time management skills, theirorganizational skillsand their independent learning skills,” she noted. “A student now has to think, ‘Okay, I’ve got biology classroom 8 till 10. All right, so where’s that zoom invite? How am I going to organize my calendar? Then I’ve got physics from one to three. So, where’s that zoom invite?

“So, it’s really challenging our students to flip that classroom and while the transition was a bit rocky for some, I think they are really finding their stride and they are really working those independent learning, time management and organizational skills. Something amazing is coming out of this.”

Coolidge, without prompting, describes what she sees in the context of UWC founder Kurt Hahn’s memorable quote, there’s more in you than you think. “Our students are right now dealing with this transition…it’s challenging them to see their learning in a different way.

“Oftentimes, for our European students their first class of the day might be at 5 pm so they’re kind of shifting their day to be 5 to 11 pm…and our students in Asia, they’re starting their day at 11 pm so their synchronous learning is 11 pm to 4 am.

“We’re not telling them to set an alarm and wake up at 3 am for a class! We’re trying to be accommodating with diverse time zones by recording classes, posting them online and creating availability so that all faculty have an office hour between six and eight in the morning or one that is between six and ten at night.”

Faculty, students and all staff agree that there needs to be some creative way of getting community gatherings together. Some students have already organized their own community social time; the Tuesday morning (student-led) announcements crew have organized video get-togethers. Everybody is looking ahead to the end of the school year and thinking about how to make that memorable for the community, particularly the Year 45 cohort whose on-campus experience ended quickly and prematurely.

Looking even further afield, Universities Counsellor Becky Halverson said that while she definitely misses the chances on campus for informal conversations and “troubleshooting through things in a really simple way,” she is continuing to have robust discussions with students and post-secondary institutions virtually.

“There are opportunities that students are being presented with,” she said. “Universities are being flexible and they are offering (incoming) students options – I think that’s wonderful for people to know. There are a lot of good news stories for our students in their next steps.”

She added that universities are implementing measures such as offering virtual programs for accepted students and curriculum reviews for incoming students so that, when they start at the post-secondary level, they are ready to make a fast start. “Overall, the messages from universities is, ‘yes, we still want you.’”

Coolidge and her colleagues acknowledge that the trauma of a global pandemic, the direct impact of the COVID-19 virus on family and friends, the closing of international borders and the need to be uprooted from your studies quickly only to start back on them within a week or 10 days on a completely different platform has created tremendous anxiety for both faculty and students.

“But people are finding their stride now. I think with any transition it’s really difficult at first…but the majority of us are doing okay. We’re excited by how this might challenge us to change the way we deliver our classes and our methods of student assessments. It’s an interesting time.”