As students, we’re all aware of how our learning experiences have changed over the years. From first grade to our university studies at UTM, the change is evident in not only what we learn, but also in how we learn. Yet, something we don’t often consider is how the practice of teaching itself has changed and influenced our learning experience.
Dr. Jordana Garbati, who joined UTM as an assistant professor this past July at the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy, is immersed in the study of teaching, or pedagogy as it’s more formally known. In addition to instructing the course, ISP100: “Writing for University and Beyond: Writing About Writing,” Dr. Garbati consults across campus with students and faculty on writing in pedagogy and writing in the different disciplines.
Although new to UTM, Dr. Garbati has an extensive background in academia. “I’ve always been in education. I used to work in the public school system at the elementary level mostly, [and] in between my degrees I was teaching at elementary schools,” she says. After earning her PhD in education, Dr. Garbati worked as a writing consultant at Wilfred Laurier until she joined UTM this past summer.
When explaining what pedagogy entails, Dr. Garbati says, “in addition to [the study of] teaching, you’re also learning a lot about how people are learning, so you change your teaching practices, or invent new teaching practices. I see teaching and learning as interwoven in pedagogy. It’s about thinking very carefully about how you’re teaching, whyyou’re teaching, and what are you teaching.”
When broaching the subject of teaching and learning amid a pandemic, Dr. Garbati affirms, “so much has changed this year,” as students and instructors face challenges in these unprecedented times. To Dr. Garbati, these challenges have given her a new perspective on pedagogy. “I’ve always been aware that students are going through a lot, so sometimes when I give students a hard time about not putting their camera on, I realize it’s not a big deal. They’re halfway across the world, or they’ve just woken up, or they don’t have a space in their house to work. They have many other issues to deal with right now.”
As an instructor, she notes that the transition to Zoom and online learning has taken a bit of an adjustment period for her as well, stating, “I miss the personal interaction I get with students, and reading their faces and body language to see if they’re interested, bored, or on task. Everything I would do in an in-person environment.”
She notes that online learning has its practical deficits as well. “It’s harder to develop those conversational skills and interpersonal skills that students will need as they advance through university and enter the workforce, or start travelling again,” states Dr. Garbati. Due to the lack of impersonal connections, it will be increasingly difficult for students to build the necessary confrontational and conversational skills that they would normally get from a school environment. Additionally, she emphasized the importance of students interacting with peers outside of the learning environment. “I gave [my students] a list of student groups, as a way for them to connect with other people besides people in the class, or me,” says Dr. Garbati “I really wonder what kind of socializing my students are getting outside of class, and I get a little sad if they don’t have it.”
Dr. Garbati also finds a new disconnect between her and her students, one that only a pandemic could create. “I know my students, but if I see them in person, I wouldn’t recognize them. It’s hard not being able to put a face to the name.” She also has to rely heavily on students communicating with her. “They’re literally around the world. Today a student said to me, ‘I might be cutting in and out of class today, because there’s a typhoon and our internet is not so stable.’ I have to rely on them to tell me these things, because otherwise I might have called them out for not being in class.”
When asked whether she would consider embracing online learning full-time, even after the pandemic ends, she says she would be open to it, with a caveat. “I’d have to be more conscious of trying to meet people in-person too,” she says, adding, “everything is online now, and I get sick of my computer. I hope students are building breaks into their days.”
In the meantime, Dr. Garbati has of course had to make changes to her classroom, while trying to maintain the same policies she values as a professor. She makes time for one-on-one time with her students and sets up groups for students to discuss among themselves. To establish a stream-lined approach to online learning, Dr. Garbati had to test various teaching practices. “I tried a different kind of group activity where every student joined a Google Doc, and contributed to a master list of reading notes. It was so cool to see everyone contributing something.”
Dr. Garbati also frequently uses breakout rooms in her virtual classroom, and has added “pre-class activities,” that take place in the first 10 minutes before class and include students rating their feelings that day, reading a short text, or a colouring activity.
Advancements in technology always bring in advantages and disadvantages to daily life. For Dr. Garbati, advantages to online learning includes student engagement tracking. “I am so happy with the participation. Now that there are options for participation, by using their microphone or utilizing the chat function, engagement is high.”
Dr. Garbati is optimistic about online learning’s opportunities for positive change “Of course, it’s challenging, but it’s also given us opportunities to [differ from] what we’ve been doing for 30 years […] It’s given me a push to try things in a different way, and communicate with students in a different way than what I’m used to.”
Moreover, Dr. Garbati recognizes that teaching practices aren’t the same as when she was an undergraduate student. “I hope students aren’t as afraid to talk to their professors. I hope that’s gone out the window! In one of my classes, we’ve gotten into the habit of playing Among Us after class. They taught me how to do it, I connected it to what we’re doing in class, and we play! I would never have dreamed of doing that with one of my professors.”
In response to the difficult question of why the switch to online learning took a pandemic to trigger, when it could potentially have made learning more accessible for students, Dr. Garbati states, “Change is always hard, and kind of unimaginable. Change in universities is slow, and hard, and we want research-informed practices. But when you’re forced to do it, you don’t have time to research whether it will work or not, you’re researching as you do it.” However, it’s been impressive for students and instructors alike to see the extent of their capabilities to adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.
In terms of starting her career as a professor amid a pandemic, Dr. Garbati is remarkably positive. “I’ve been very fortunate, happy, and lucky to go from one great job to another during a pandemic when so many people are struggling, so I’m extremely grateful. I’m generally a positive person with a positive outlook, and of course I have my bad days too, but I had so much experience coming into this position that I felt confident that I could manage it, even in an online environment.”
“One of my biggest struggles has been figuring out how Quercus works!” she adds.
For now, Dr. Garbati doesn’t know what the future holds for online teaching, both short-term and long-term. “I might be bringing more technology into the classroom now. I think there are loads of opportunities for online work in the next five to 10 years. I don’t think it’s going away.”