Learning online: KPE faculty and students share insights and tips


Early on in 2020, when COVID-19 was just starting to show the world its might, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education decided to offer its students two hybrid courses, combining online lectures with weekly in-person tutorials. Prescient thinking or …?

Ashley Stirling, associate professor, teaching stream, and vice dean of academics at KPE, explains the Faculty is committed to maintaining academic excellence while thoughtfully evolving in response to changing trends and opportunities in higher education. 

“One of these opportunities is the advancement of technology in the classroom and looking beyond traditional classroom and laboratory approaches to offer increased flexibility and diversity in our educational offerings,” she says. 

“We have a long history of experiential hands-on education in our academic programs. We wanted to complement these experiential opportunities, while considering the needs of our students, some of whom need to balance education with other work and family responsibilities. The development of online and hybrid courses was a way to address KPE students’ diverse and growing learning needs.”

Tracia Finlay-Watson, a lecturer at KPE, taught a winter hybrid course on health and physical education in the elementary years and was pleased to see the students respond favourably to the experience.

“The biggest advantage to online learning is that every student in the course had their voice heard. Where often students don’t have an opportunity to engage and discuss content in an in-person lecture, every student actively participated in every online module,” she says. “They were able to engage with each module at their own pace and had time to really process the content. This resulted in very rich comments and discussions both with each other and with myself.”
Like many of her students, Finlay-Watson commutes to campus. Teaching online saved her the usual three-hour return commute one day per week, which was an added perk.

Her advice to students going into online classrooms in the fall? 

“Be organized, stay informed and ask questions.”

Fourth year KPE student Naqia Najafi took Finlay-Watson’s course and says she really thrived in the online learning environment.

“I found that the structure of the course allowed you to better understand the content then in-person lectures. I felt more prepared for the final exam than I ever have.” 

Najafi says a few things helped her enjoy the online course, including having weekly discussion posts.

”Having the opportunity to engage in discussions with your peers, not only helped to learn the course material, but also made a more collaborative space.”

She also enjoyed the variety of activities within the weekly modules, such as practice quizzes, Padlet activities, the readings, practice assignments and videos.

Najafi’s classmate Taylor Tassone had never taken an online course before in university and it took some time to adjust to an asynchronous lecture format, which lets students work through the course material at their own pace. 

“My biggest concern was the level of responsibility needed to complete all of the course work independently. But, once the course started and I became familiar with how it was organized, it became very easy to stay on top of my work,” she says. 

“I also worried that I would not receive the same level of academic support, compared to an in-person course. However, the online course provided me with so many opportunities to connect with my peers and professor to ensure all of my questions were answered.”

She encourages all students coming on board in the fall to set deadlines for themselves every week, in all of their classes, to ensure they don’t fall behind. 

“And, review all feedback provided by your professors or teaching assistants, especially at the beginning of the year. It will tell you exactly what you need to work on to improve your grades,” she says.

With the hybrid courses a success and the Province of Ontario declaring a state of emergency in response to COVID-19 in March, KPE moved all six of its summer courses fully online, with over 500 students registered. 

Assistant Professor Adam Ali taught a summer course on qualitative methods in research design and evaluation. He says delivering his course online made him rethink his own approach to teaching. 

“Learning how to deliver a course through module building, where students have the opportunity to go through the course content on their own time, has illuminated the importance of breaking up each lesson into palatable “chunks” that will more effectively hold their attention. I imagine that when we do return to more in-person courses, I will continue to utilize such a strategy in my lectures,” he says.

Ali sought to maintain a positive culture of learning by creating more intimate online spaces through small-class tutorial webinars and online forum assessments. His students also had the opportunity to work (remotely) together on group presentations.

He has four tips for students starting or continuing in the fall online. 

“Make sure you take breaks. Working online can make it feel like you can or should always be working, especially when there are less opportunities for other interests. But taking time to spend with your family, friends and colleagues (virtually or in-person), or pursuing other enjoyable, relaxing hobbies is even more important now. Manage your time well, be kind to yourself and others and don’t hesitate to ask for help.” 

Second year KPE student Sasha Renton De Lannoy took Ali’s course and found concentration and motivation to be the biggest challenges of learning online.

“I found myself having to isolate my learning spot in the house in order to avoid distractions. This was a struggle that was much less noticeable when I was spending a large amount of time on-campus studying,” he says.

What helped him enjoy the class online was the ability to interact with online classmates in smaller groups to discuss the lessons. His advice to students starting in the fall is to participate whenever possible in order to stay engaged and get the most out of their classes. 

For Kauser Fatima, who also attended Ali’s course, learning online took some getting used to, but eventually she learned what works for her.

“I thought that online learning would be impersonal, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could still count on my peers and course instructors.” 

She offers five tips for students embarking on the online learning experience in the fall: plan ahead, reach out for help as soon as you need it, don't be afraid to ask for clarification from peers or instructors, always attend synchronous classes and take advantage of dropping into virtual office hours.

Her classmate Abigail Holmes suggests mimicking a class environment at home while e-learning. 

“Set up your desk and remove unnecessary items. Put away distractions, such as your phone and don’t study near your bed. Additionally, ensure that your housemates respect your space and let them know when you’re studying or in class.”

Having adequate technology to make the leap online is another important consideration. Paul Morrison, director of IT and multimedia at KPE, says the faculty has an excellent team to help instructors and students make the transition. 

“Additional instructional design professionals, video editors and lab specialists have been working with faculty and instructors to adapt course content into the best possible experience for students,” he says. “Our regular IT team will also be assisting students experiencing challenges with their at-home technology or the interactive tools their instructors are using in their courses.”

Importantly, the Registrar’s Office will continue to provide services to all students remotely to support their success, such as one on one academic advising, group advising sessions and specific support services, including an embedded learning strategist, accessibility counsellor, the Health Science Writing Centre, and more.

“I am excited by the creativity of our faculty members and staff in preparing for the term ahead,” says Stirling. “There has never been more focus on educational quality and I’m looking forward to see the innovative teaching and learning approaches applied across our courses this fall.”