As the fall term moves into high gear, academic units around Dalhousie are adapting to the new reality of online teaching. For the Faculty of Computer Science (FCS), that shift has been made easier by a teaching development approach known as the community of practice, an organic movement based on relationship building and peer support. By sharing teaching experiences — and even attending each other’s classes — faculty members in the FCS are gaining moral support and expanding their pedagogical horizons. Other faculties at Dalhousie are also enjoying success with this approach.

The architect of this movement in the FCS is educational developer Stephanie Bernier. Bernier was hired last August and brings a wealth of experience in online pedagogy to Dalhousie, having spent the previous 20 years directing digital learning and ICT programs at colleges in Dubai.

“The community of practice philosophy that is happening at the Faculty of Computer Science is basically an extension of what we started in the last academic year when faculty were teaching face-to-face classes,” she says.

“It was a guided ‘soft’, organic, approach that focused on building trusting relationships whereby faculty got to a point where they felt comfortable enough to have discussions with one another about what they were doing in their teaching practice. Although this was happening on a small scale in the faculty lounge at lunch breaks with a few instructors before I arrived, we needed to facilitate this on a grander scale faculty-wide.”

Connections and challenges

Bernier says this focused approach began with one-to-one peer observations between herself and FCS instructors. Soon, the scope of peer observation expanded to include other faculty. “We had just initiated instructor-to-instructor peer observations before the pandemic hit. The main point here was that the vast majority of faculty had already become comfortable with inviting either myself or a colleague to observe their face-to-face classes. Often, a pedagogical strategy or tool that had been successfully implemented in one course was the exact the solution that another instructor was looking to find.”

Bernier says that one of the unexpected results of the pandemic was an even greater interconnectedness between faculty. “When COVID-19 forced us all to work remotely, the situation provided us an opportunity to actually be more effective in developing the Community of Practice at the FCS. Initially, information was being shared by faculty over emails, but communication was quite clunky. Then we transitioned to using Microsoft Teams, which has been fabulous!

“We have had focused video meetings for various groups on Teams, including bi-weekly meetings for summer and fall instructors. We share files and pose questions to one another, either offering helpful tips about what’s working online in one’s online course or asking for advice on various aspects in online pedagogy.”

Despite these serendipitous benefits, the move online has been challenging. Faculty are still adapting to the digital environment. Creating online courses is time consuming, and there is the constant worry that technology will fail in the middle of a class. “The general feeling in the faculty about the transition has been mixed,” says Bernier.

“Most instructors prefer face-to-face teaching. Everyone is now aware that it is extremely time consuming to create an online course. However, much of the hard work done in the first iteration of one’s course, i.e. topic videos, course design etc., can be used again in future iterations. A lot of the steep learning curve in online teaching is deciding on course design, learning how to use educational technology, workflows for the creation of content, and more.”

Still, Bernier feels positive about the shift. She says that many instructors were able to get experience in online teaching over the spring and summer — experience that is carrying over into the fall term. She says those who are teaching online for the first time have ample support available to them through fellow instructors in the FCS and through other supporting departments like Academic Technology Services (ATS) of the Dalhousie Libraries and the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT).

The Faculty is set to formalize its approach to education research and development through the launch of a new research cluster in Computer Science Education. Led by recent hire Eric Poitras, whose research area focuses on instructional development and educational technology, the cluster will work at the intersection of research and computer science education to continue to innovate in this area and develop new approaches to teaching and learning. The research cluster will raise the bar on how the Faculty accesses student learning and faculty-delivered education, applying the rigour of academic research to their academic mission. It is also a means to contribute to the forefront of education in computer science by building a deep understanding of the impact of rapid feedback, adaptive learning, and more to the 21st century higher education experience.

The road to improvement

Alex Brodsky and Corey DeGagné are two faculty members in the FCS who have faced the challenge of online teaching head-on while embracing the Community of Practice philosophy. Dr. Brodsky had never taught or participated in an online class before the pandemic, but adapted quickly. “I was lucky that the outbreak happened at the end of the term where most of the material that benefitted from in-person delivery had already been covered,” he says.

In March and April, Dr. Brodsky took a virtual course on online teaching. “It was incredibly helpful,” he says. “First, it reinforced that many things that I was previously doing in in-person classes was easily transferable to the online domain. For example, I had already made it standard practice to post all my lecture notes on Brightspace and use Brightspace as the central location for all course content. This was exactly what is expected in the online context.
 
“Secondly, the course gave me the online student perspective that I had lacked. I learned about the online student context, where the amount of time, location, and resources varies much more from student to student.”

Dr. Brodsky is quick to credit the community of practice environment in the FCS for helping his success. “I am a big supporter of this practice for two reasons,” he says. “First, we can all learn something new from each other and we can gain the benefit of experience from others going through this process. We do not have time to try all the different teaching and testing strategies out there. But, since each of us does things a little differently and has the opportunity to learn different tools and techniques, we can gain the benefit of each other’s experience in fraction of the time. In computer science there is a general admonition against re-inventing the wheel. A community of practice serves that purpose.

“Secondly, I think that looking critically at one’s own work and having others viewing it as well leads to improvement. It is instinctual and tempting (at least to me) to avoid opening oneself to criticism. But, it is a healthy academic ethic to have others view your work with a critical eye.”

Corey DeGagné, who joined the FCS two weeks before the pandemic forced Dalhousie to close, has also had a transformative experience in the move online. “The experience has definitely been different, but exciting in its own way,” he says. “It took getting used to, talking to a screen in my home office, especially since I was so used to building a community within the class. However, over the summer I learned that I could still achieve that but just in different ways.

“For instance, I’m lucky enough to have tutorials in my course, so I started them a week earlier and had the students complete team-building exercises to get to know each other. For the remainder of the course, they were much more comfortable talking with each other and reaching out to their peers for help.”

Dr. DeGagné says he’s learned things in the move online that he’ll carry over to his classes when in-person teaching resumes. “For instance, I will continue to record my lectures and supply closed captioning for students, as well as fully using the Brightspace Discussion threads to keep the students engaged in the course.”

Although he’s a relatively new faculty member, he feels right at home in the community of practice environment. “I am always opened for others to take a peek inside of my courses to see how the structure we have set up could work for their course,” he says.

“Since I’m new to the faculty, I haven’t had the opportunity to have others come and view my lectures in-person. However, in the virtual era that we’re now in, I have invited many people into my courses, and have created a video explaining all of the different parts of my course, why I did what I did, and what lessons we learned.”  

Giving back to others

Bernier, Dr. Brodsky, and Dr. DeGagné are just three members of a department that is successfully navigating the move online, thanks in large part to the integrated network fostered by the community of practice philosophy. “The community of practice builds, well, a community,” says Dr. Brodsky. “It’s nice to feel part of the community and in these times it is even more necessary.  

“Even if someone is an on-line teaching guru, they can give back to the community by guiding and advising others as well as gaining from their experiences. I honestly enjoy this part the most and my experience has been very positive. As a teacher, I get a lot of satisfaction when a student says ‘Thank you, I get it!’ Well, I get the same kind of satisfaction by being part of this community.”

Says Dr. Bernier, “I am passionate about building innovative and collaborative communities of educators, and feel strongly that all instructors know that they are not alone; no matter where they are in their teaching journey. In the Faculty of Computer Science, our instructors may be individuals teaching only one term, or they may be full-time instructors, researchers who also teach, adjuncts and the list goes on. It’s important that everyone has access to support when they need it and feel that they are a member of our teaching community. We practice a culture of kindness in the faculty, it makes for a positive experience for everyone. I also use our hashtag #WeAreAllCS in presentations, emails to faculty and in resources I create as a method to promote inclusion in the faculty.”

Dr. DeGagné echoes these sentiments and says he’s feeling great about teaching online as we draw closer to the middle of the term. “My take-away to online teaching is that it’s a lot of work, but if done well, it’s still rewarding. Though I still miss the in-person classes dearly, we can still be great educators if we put in the extra work and aren’t afraid to ask for help. Also, don’t forget the things that we can relax on, such as time constraints for assessment submission, compared to things that we should take extremely seriously such as academic integrity and assessment proctoring.”

Dr. Brodsky’s course, CSCI 3136 Principles of Programming Languages, and Dr. DeGagné’s offering of MATH/CSCI 2112 Discrete Structures I (taught along with Frank Fu), have been designated as exemplar courses by the FCS and are available in Brightspace for faculty in FCS and across Dalhousie to self-enrol, along with other exemplar courses from faculty across the institution. In keeping with the community of practice philosophy, other faculty are encouraged to take a look.