A new pilot program at U of T, called Transforming the Instructional Landscape (TIL), aims to assist instructors in navigating the new online learning environment and improving their online teaching. This comes in the backdrop of a year where online learning has become the new norm for most classes — with some students raising concerns about a lower quality of education and increased social difficulty.

The program is a collaboration among several administrative departments of U of T, including Learning Space Management, the Innovation Hub, and the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation. 

Improving online teaching

The goals of this program are to help make technology and the online delivery of courses simpler, preserve in-person teaching styles, improve the student experience, and offer improved teaching solutions. 

The program hopes to achieve these goals by utilizing technology. This semester, there are eight professors teaching online courses who are involved in the project and trying out new online teaching methods and collaborating with the Learning Space Management team to figure out what methods work best for teaching and learning.

TIL was established with eight principles that were first developed in fall 2020 using student and instructor input. The principles include having a personalized approach, recognizing emotional stakes, and keeping communication transparent.

Steven Bailey, the director of Learning Space Management, and Julia Allworth, the manager of Innovation Projects and leader of Innovation Hub, joined this program to assist instructors and students who are using an online platform for educational purposes.

They wrote in an email to The Varsity, “This pilot is an opportunity to leverage our current investments in technology infrastructure and expertise on campus to support instructors in their online teaching, and ultimately to support students’ learning experiences.”

Bailey and Allworth noted that the instructors who are involved “identified the desire to create a community of practice focused on online learners, which would continue to grow and experiment with new teaching tools or strategies.”

Even beyond the scope of the current project, Bailey and Allworth hope to use what they learn “to support instructors interested in experimenting with strategies and technologies in online learning” in the future. 

The normalization of online teaching

The program was designed to provide opportunities for community building with academic staff of varying disciplines, familiarities with technology, and class sizes.

One of the professors involved in the pilot program is Randy Boyagoda, Vice-Dean Undergraduate at the Faculty of Arts & Science and an English professor. Boyagoda had to move his in-person teaching methods to a virtual platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with The Varsity, Boyagoda described his motivation for becoming involved with this program. “If I want to encourage other colleagues to consider experimenting with online teaching, I should do it myself,” he explained. 

He added that he was “interested in seeing how working with colleagues in learning space management could create the… best possible learning experience for my students.”

The program has revolved around “learner-centred design,” which Boygoda defined as centring the experience of the student behind the screen. 

During the semester, there will be regular assessments of the program. Ongoing assessments will include cohort meetings with the eight instructors throughout the semester, opportunities for students to provide experiential feedback regarding their course, and finally, one-on-one meetings between the instructors involved and the Innovation Hub team to discover ways to best support virtual teaching and learning.

Boyagoda expressed that he wants to ensure the best learning experience for his students and make sure his methods of online teaching are “clear, crisp, effective, and not entirely boring.”