Education

Leaning into distance learning

Bishop’s student Loch Baillie got a job co-designing virtual classes and discovered ways to make studying from home better—for himself and others

Originally from Worcester, Mass., Loch Baillie is a fourth-year honours English literature and French student at Bishop’s University.

It was March 2020 and I had just returned home from my semester abroad in England—except the semester wasn’t over, I was in quarantine and a deadly virus was beginning to creep its way around the globe. I was meant to be exploring Europe on my study breaks; instead, I was attending classes an ocean away via a chat room.

Everything about this time was strange and uncertain. The concept of online learning was as foreign to me as the words “social distancing” and wearing a mask to the grocery store. It didn’t seem like there was anything familiar to cling to, and even worse, there was no way of knowing what the following months would bring.

In April, I received an email from one of my professors asking if I was looking for summer employment. Bishop’s University was looking to hire students as part of its new online learning and technology consultant (OLTC) program. If I got the job, I would work closely with professors to design fall courses for online delivery, thus playing a significant role in my university’s COVID response.

On the night of my interview—a warm evening in May—I sat down at my computer and joined a video call with 30 other students. While initially intimidated by the idea of a group interview, I soon realized the format was exactly what I needed after being isolated for so long. We talked about what a Bishop’s experience during COVID might look like, and for the first time in months, I felt hope. I had missed the Bishop’s community greatly and was inspired by how much everyone on that call cared about our school.

When I was hired as an OLTC, I was grateful and relieved. A time that had felt so purposeless finally had a purpose, and I would have a say in the decisions being made about the final year of my undergrad. I began training in July, and my days were spent learning how to use different online platforms, designing a demo class for a faculty mentor and getting to know my colleagues. The difficult topic of COVID-19 was at the forefront of many of our conversations, but I found it became easier to talk about as I settled into the job. I realize today that my training period played a key role in how I processed my shock after the virus’s first wave.

There weren’t many moments in the summer when I worked alone. A few of my colleagues and I would often stay on our group call just to be around other people. It did wonders for our mental health and provided us with a live shared space, just like an office. These calls were also convenient for asking each other questions and solving problems. For example, I could proofread a syllabus for one of my peers and they could teach me how to embed videos. I learned through these interactions that I like working in groups more than I thought I did.

One of the most enlightening parts of my job has been my one-on-one meetings with professors. During these assessments, I learned about professors’ individual teaching styles, listened to their concerns and anxieties about going into fall 2020 and helped them come up with engaging and comprehensive lessons tailored to their students’ needs. For an English class on Shakespeare that I had already taken, I helped rethink the delivery of the material and how students would interact with each other. We ended up choosing three ways to engage with the course content—short video lectures, podcasts and readings—and planned five virtual play performances (in which the students are the cast members) that would take place throughout the semester. These modifications ensured students would still get the in-classroom experience from home, whether they were learning directly from the professor or working with their peers.

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It takes a certain amount of courage for faculty to let their guard down and jump head-first into such unfamiliar territory. Since being hired, my interactions with professors have been unique and, to be honest, occasionally uncomfortable. Educators can become hesitant when their students are no longer just students but also collaborators. This model defies the faculty-student hierarchy traditionally found in academia, but I have discovered that such a model can yield fruitful results.

My work has made me further appreciate what teachers do and has taught me that it is essential for students to co-design their learning journeys. So much unseen planning goes into the creation of university courses, from choosing the topics that will guide the curriculum to assigning percentages to assignments in the gradebook. I was able to witness this process as an OLTC while giving insight as a student about what I believed would work best in a digital classroom. After all, who better to advise teachers on their instruction than those being taught? Having a chance to co-design my own education has had an impact on how I perceive myself as a learner. I used to think learning from home wasn’t something I’d be able to do. One of the reasons I love school is being in the classroom environment, so how could I love school anymore if the classrooms were all online?

While online learning is still not ideal, my job has made me understand that if classes are well-designed, if I give myself breaks and if I find the right routine, it is doable. I also know now that this model of education is not going to disappear post-COVID. As I write this article, my school is in its second semester of online teaching, and my work as an OLTC continues. What was once a solution for an uncertain fall is a design model for the future of post-secondary education.


This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2021 Canadian Universities Guidebook with the headline, “Leaning into the distance.” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.