Monday, July 6, 2020


Since the closing of campus in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Waterloo instructors have pivoted to remote teaching as an alternative mode of instruction. The Department of Management Sciences (MSCI) was quick to react and adapt to this significant change through collaborative approaches and disciplinary strategies.

Shortly after the campus closure, MSCI’s Teaching Officer (Ken McKay) worked with others to create a forum for MSCI faculty members and others interested in helping and learning together. McKay said the forum, which was set up in Piazza, was “critical to create a sense of community.” Strategies, course materials, and experiences were shared in the forum. Mehrdad Pirnia, Graduate Attributes Lecturer, said that the collaboration fostered by the Piazza forum “has been really joyful…. We’re sharing everything, anything that is happening within the remote courses.”

As they undertook this switch to remote teaching, MSCI -- not surprisingly -- drew upon the very risk management principles they teach. Their strategy comprised three stages: being proactive with educational technologies; creating empathy; and monitoring and sharing progress. 

Being proactive with educational technologies

Many MSCI instructors advocated for early preparation, setup, and testing of educational technologies before the spring term began on May 11.  This action helped minimize technology issues as the term began. Early identification of support contacts was also crucial to promptly answer questions and provide additional technological support. Moving forward, MSCI aims to develop a guide that will help their instructors choose the most appropriate educational technology for different applications.

Creating empathy

The switch to remote teaching, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic itself, created significant stress for students, instructors, and teaching assistants alike. MSCI instructors were encouraged to establish empathetic, reasonable, and realistic expectations for students when planning and delivering their courses.

Similarly, students were reminded that their instructors and TAs were also navigating these new circumstances for the first time, and doing so under time constraints. As McKay said, “we wanted to understand students, understand their problems, but also wanted the students to understand the instructors’ situation; both sides had to have realistic and reasonable expectations of the other.”

By the end of March, MSCI had mobilized student class representatives as a communication channel to relay general student feedback, concerns, and expectations and help with class polling. Early student engagement and involving students in some of the course design helped cultivate an interactive and positive learning environment.

Monitoring and sharing progress

Monitoring progress and frequent communication were critical to establish organization and structure for spring term. MSCI’s Umair Shah facilitated weekly department meetings, where collective experiences, challenges, and best approaches were shared.

In addition, a buddy system for MSCI instructors was established to provide additional peer support for those who wanted it. The MSCI department led by example by launching a course for its instructors that modelled how to build an online course, set expectations, and initiate early feedback or questions.

Shah anticipates that the switch to remote teaching may change the trajectory of future course delivery as it inspires instructors to rethink their pedagogical approach and devise innovative teaching strategies. By doing so, they turn challenging circumstances into an opportunity.

This story first appeared on the Daily Bulletin. It is in a series from the Centre for Teaching Excellence to facilitate cross-institutional sharing of strategies for remote teaching.