Adapting blended learning for a pandemic, and beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that all schools and colleges have had to make a lot of changes to how they deliver their programs—and fast. And at MH Vicars School, it was no different. We closed our campuses in mid-March, and classes continued online.
It was an adjustment, certainly, and not how we wanted to finish the school year. But our faculty and staff were not unprepared for the change. Our experience teaching and learning in a blended learning format helped us transition into the “new normal.”
Our Edmonton Director Robin Collum and our Curriculum Director Linda McGeachy sat down—over zoom, naturally—to talk about how Vicars has adapted to the pandemic , and how we’re preparing for whatever the next year might have in store for us.
You can also read the full transcript of the conversation below.
Robin: The MH Vicars School program has always been delivered through blended learning. Can you describe what blended learning means at MH Vicars?
Linda: Fundamentally, it means that time spent at home on the curriculum is as important as the in class component of the program.
Why did we choose a blended learning format in the first place? Who’s it for and why is it valuable for our students?
Well, that was the original vision of the owner of the school, Maryhelen Vicars: to provide quality training to a demographic that does not have the means to access it any other way. It is a full-time program in terms of content. By choosing this format, students are able to spend less time being physically present at the school, but still are able to obtain all the necessary content of the program.
The value is for those who are unable to take a program that requires them to be in school for five days a week for two years. We have several learning pathways and our students choose the one that fits their particular circumstances.
So it sounds much more flexible for people who have responsibilities and jobs and things.
Can you describe how our approach to blended learning has evolved over the years?
At first, our blended learning [material] consisted of paper binders filled with assignments and notes that students completed at home and brought back to class with them. As technology has evolved, it has allowed more academic content to be delivered online.
We’ve moved more core content to the online learning system. Courses such as pathology and anatomy and physiology have become independent courses that students can take at home following a set timeline and using online resources from the textbooks as well as resources specifically developed by the school. The most current evolution to the program is the type of blended learning where students are introduced to content at home before working through it at school. This is sometimes called a “flipped classroom.”
In a common flipped classroom scenario, students might watch pre-recorded videos at home, complete specific assignments and do a quiz and then come to school to do the work armed with questions and some background knowledge.
So it sounds much more intensive than just some pre-reading.
It has a lot of weight. And, of course, all of those pre-reading assignments and whatnot will [be part of] an overall mark for the program as well.
And that means that when they’re on campus with their instructors in their pairs, in groups of three, they have a lot more context for the hands-on stuff, it sounds like.
Indeed. And so it frees up time in the classroom for the all-important hands-on component by enabling them to get through some of the academic or more theoretical work at home.
What changes did we make at Vicars and how have our classes been continuing to learn since we stopped our on-campus stuff in March?
Well, coincidentally, the pandemic only sped up a process that we’d already been designing and developing that is having students more prepared before class. Along with much more emphasis on video conferences with their instructors.
We’ve always had contact between instructors and students in between those in class days. And this is just increasing that?
Yes. The video conferencing is going to become a much bigger component. And of course, that has gone along with what we’ve had to do with putting much of our material online due to the covid situation.
Do you feel that our existing blended learning approach helped prepare us and maybe even prepare our students for this new reality of the last couple of months?
Well, without doubt, the fact that our students and instructors were already used to a large part of the course being completed at home was a benefit. However, it has not been without significant challenges as well.
Can you tell me some of the challenges that we’ve experienced with online learning?
Well, not all of our instructors are familiar with actually teaching online. Keeping the students connected to certain components of the program and to each other has been a considerable challenge for both faculty and students.
Definitely had been a learning curve on that. How have we been helping our instructors deal with that learning curve? How have we been helping them prepare and advance their knowledge of this new way of teaching?
Instructors are going to be taking an online course over the summer about how to teach online. I think this is very important. This will prepare them for returning to class in the fall, whether virtually or face to face.
Our current students have missed some on-campus days. Will they get the opportunity to cover that material when they come back to campus?
They will. If this is necessary, all missed hands-on material will be available to current students. We’ll deliver it in a flexible manner to make sure it’s achievable for everyone.
Though it’s impossible to predict what the next couple of months are going to be like, what preparations are we making as a school to help plan for different eventualities?
Well, we’ll continue to prepare to hone online teaching skills by supporting faculty with resources for teaching online. The school’s developing more video resources for techniques and treatments to reinforce classroom time. And these things will ensure that students are ready to fully engage in the hands-on component of the program when we can return to class.
And how can students who are planning to start with us in September plan ahead and prepare for the beginning of their massage education?
Well, at this time, students can start taking Anatomy and Physiology, and Pathology. Those two core components of the program are available once you’re registered for the program.
And what’s the advantage of getting started with that online learning before classes start?
Well, those two courses are independent courses, but they are also heavy courses. And so by getting a head start on them, it will just free up more time for students when they are in the throes of the actual program. And so it’s always an advantage to be able to work ahead on that material.
The worst case scenario, of course, is if we’re not able to start on campus classes as scheduled in September or if there is another interruption in classes later in the year. How is the school planning ahead for that? Will the students who plan to start in September still be able to get their education?
In any of those scenarios, we’re prepared to deliver the course without lowering any standards. We’re set up to vary the delivery of the program to accommodate online learning and classroom time to ensure all of the standards that we’re committed to will be met.