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How 3 educators are inspiring students to learn during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended schools across Canada for students and educators from kindergarten through post-secondary.

Amid the waves of upheaval caused by school closures and the widespread installation of remote learning, however, stories of innovation and connection have emerged.

We look at three educators who are pushing forward with new ways to reach, engage and inspire learning in Canadian students amid COVID-19. 

Game-inspired learning

During a work stint overseas last year, Halifax international development professor Robert Huish had a eureka moment when a colleague pulled out Pandemic during an after-dinner board game session.

“I started to see these really important connections that could be applied to global health more broadly — and particularly to the time of a pandemic,” said Huish, who’s known for out-of-the-box classroom thinking. 

After the coronavirus pandemic was declared, Huish successfully pitched Dalhousie University’s school of public administration on a timely new course for fall 2020: an academic simulation based on the co-operative board game.

WATCH | How a board game can teach pandemic management: 

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Dalhousie international development prof Robert Huish on creating an academic simulation from a board game during COVID-19. 2:47 

An initial class of 15 — mostly master’s students in public administration studies — dove right in during the fall term, but “this wasn’t a free ride by any means,” Huish noted. The course included lectures via podcast, interviews with health experts from around the globe, regular assignments and quizzes, a mid-term and a final exam — all in addition to participating in a real-time, Pandemic-inspired simulation.

Still, “having the the thrill of working together in real time and learning about COVID-19 issues around the world, I think a lot of students really took to that…. I know there’s been a lot of stresses and challenges with online teaching this semester, but I can really say I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Buoyed by positive feedback from the first cohort, Huish has submitted a proposal for the course to become permanent. And he’s also brainstorming other classes that could bring similar excitement and engagement to post-secondary studies.

“I’m really excited about reaching out to board game designers about developing other courses that are based on this idea.” 

Using VR to practise patient assessments 

For nursing students, practising hands-on assessment of a patient can require a bit of imagination.

A fellow student — most often someone young and healthy — is the typical stand-in, with one’s instructor peering over a student’s shoulder to evaluate technique. At Calgary’s Bow Valley College, Nora MacLachlan imagined a different approach: employing virtual reality (VR) to more closely replicate the real sights, sounds and symptoms students might face when one-on-one with real patients in a clinic or hospital room.

“It really helps immerse them into the situation that they’re assessing,” said the school’s dean of health and community studies.

“It was really about decreasing anxiety for our students during the evaluation of their skills assessments and also to introduce disease processes into our lab settings. We can’t make those diseases happen…. It’s very different to have the real sound and feel of that disease process.”

WATCH | Learning to assess patients through VR:

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Nora MacLachlan, Bow Valley College’s dean of health and community studies, is spearheading the use of virtual reality for training student nurses and more. 2:44 

With a local tech partner, Bow Valley’s team started developing in fall 2019 a host of respiratory scenarios — creating a diverse range of patients/avatars with asthma, pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), for instance — to be used in the nursing program’s adult health assessment course. Then, a few hundred students tested the scenarios in the school’s new 11-station VR lab stocked with Oculus Rift headsets and toggle controllers last winter.

Undaunted when the COVID-19 pandemic put in-person classes on hold, the team pushed onward — improving the avatars, fine-tuning the VR environment and building more scenarios, including cardiac issues and ailments affecting the eyes, ears, nose and throat.

The VR assessment tool officially rolls out for Bow Valley nursing students in the winter 2021 term, but MacLachlan also sees multiple avenues for the technology: for other departments at the school, for other post-secondary institutions and perhaps even as a refresher for former or retired nurses interested in returning to the workforce.

“Truly, post-secondary education will not look the same when we’re finished,” she said.

Fun in French with Monsieur Steve

A self-described “helper,” teacher Steve Massa first began channelling his ebullient in-class persona into high-energy online videos to keep kids engaged when in-person learning shut down last spring.

“I grabbed my iPhone. I had no idea what I was doing and I just started filming,” the Grade 3 French immersion teacher said. “I just felt like I needed to do something to help kids and parents connect at home.”

He pressed on through the summer: taking online tutorials to improve his skills, building social media accounts and travelling Ontario to film fresh “Monsieur Steve” content for videos released these past few months. 

WATCH | ‘I am inspired by the kids and the things I see around me,’ says Monsieur Steve:

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Toronto teacher Steve Massa aims to inspire students to learn French via his upbeat online videos. 3:24

The Toronto District School Board teacher has received warm feedback from students, parents and other educators, who have reached out to cheer him on, offer ideas and show him how they’re using his videos in their own work.

Still, life as a YouTuber is “almost like having a second full-time job,” Massa said, adding that he’s had a steep learning curve since diving into the world of online content creation. Yet he believes all educators can be adaptable and find new ways to engage students with technology.

To boot, he’s willing to get a bit uncomfortable himself this season as he continues his online adventure.

“In the spirit of taking risks and learning from new opportunities, I’ve decided to do some winter-themed videos to try and get myself more happy and comfortable with the idea of snow and cold and freezing…. Maybe I’ll be skating, skiing, stuff that terrifies me,” Massa said.

“Who knows what I’ll come up with, but I guarantee it’ll be fun and fresh and engaging for the kids.”

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