Of pizza and quantum leaps: going online as a WEA Tutor

By James Clarke, WEA Tutor, Eastern region 

I’ll admit to being the subject of some lucky timing. 

In October 2019 my line manager observed an in-person teaching session that I had given at a branch near Braintree in Essex. After the session, my line-manager suggested that I might be interested to learn how to use the relatively newly- launched Canvas VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) for our work as WEA tutors. I was intrigued. I had had the benefit of using a VLE during my working life at a number of Higher Education institutions in previous and so I had some feeling for what Canvas was about. That said, I did not know its specifics.  

In January 2020 I attended the required online Canvas and Zoom training sessions and they were useful and I found that I was keen to make a go of it as and when the time might be right and thought no more of it at that particular moment.  

And then, well… March 2020 came around and the pandemic and lockdown rode into view and all in-person teaching slammed to a halt by the middle of that month.  Now what ?  

The answer was right in front of me (in my experience, that rarely happens) and I found myself recognising my good luck of several months before. WEA decided to leap into the digital realm, embracing the challenge that was presenting itself and transfer its teaching delivery online. I put my name forward as willing and (maybe a little bit) able to participate in this brave new world of delivery. And I say this as someone who isn’t the most spontaneous of people or the most inclined to change track from a well-ploughed furrow. 

Just shy of a year into the process of delivering teaching online (it’s still face to face; just not in-person) I have to say that I have had the most rewarding time to date in my work as WEA tutor. That may sound unexpected and counterintuitive, I appreciate.  

I think that it is fair to say that I don’t use Canvas in any particularly elaborate or complicated way…that may partly be due to the nature of the courses I deliver though. For me, its key functions are:  

  • the way that it works as a repository for weekly resources (I always picture a pizza loaded up with a lot of good toppings) 

  • as an effective way of keeping in touch with students via email  

  • as an efficient (paper free) way of managing course documentation  

Teaching online and using Canvas as a resource repository has totally changed, and for me, I think, improved and enriched my teaching delivery. There’s a dynamism to it that I find rewarding. In a sense, in terms of setting up a course and keeping it chugging along. It feels like a much more sustained and intensive teaching role and sits in such contrast to an earlier time when I’d drive to a branch, give a talk, provide a hard copy handout that summarised a given session and indicated some further reading and then I’d get back in the car and head home. It felt a somewhat lonely and disconnected experience. Since spring 2020, the evolution of WEA’s online delivery has played its part in my experience of being (and feeling) so much more connected to the bigger picture of the WEA.  

In feedback I’ve had from online students, a number of them have cited the wealth of resources that we are now able to provide them in the form of varied and plentiful online links and downloads via Canvas; far surpassing a hard-copy handout mode. Canvas has rather exploded this. One of my students recently commented (positively) that there was almost too much for them to make time to read via the Module section of a given course page.  

Ahead of a given class I provide students with indications of relevant clips and, if possible, encourage them to read at least some of the material relating to a given film and its subject.  

Another highlight of teaching online is that for those students who may not be so comfortable with speaking aloud in order to ask a question or make a comment they have the benefit of an alternative forum, namely the Chat function in Zoom. Via the Chat function, a student can type out a question or observation which, as the tutor I am able to see coming through in ‘real-time’ immediately. With a little bit of experience, I have become comfortable with keeping an eye on the chat text as it comes through and then responding  and referring to it during the discussion part of a given class.  

I recognise, of course, that in-person (and I use the distinction…it’s all face-to-face teaching whatever the ‘real’ or virtual venue) teaching allows for a very nice social dynamic but the experience of nearly a year now suggests that a similar warmth and sense of belonging is emerging online: students enter the Zoom room within a fifteen-minute window prior to class beginning and they use that time to chat and say ‘Hi’ to each other and to ask questions of me as they arise. It’s a nice quarter of an hour. In keeping with in-person teaching, we always schedule a break within a given session for everyone to refresh themselves (and their eyes) and certainly some students use this moment of pause to further chat socially. 

It’s occurred to me that online teaching also allows for the following: fairly often students write to me with feedback and comment about the delivery of a given session and where they may express a reservation or suggestion for change that can be easily and readily made by me as a tutor. Case-in-point: that happened very recently in relation to a session that I delivered online. For the following session I made changes and adjustments prompted by student feedback. Encouragingly, the particular student who had highlighted a dissatisfaction wrote to thank me and their observation about where I could afford to adjust the class-format has stayed with me.  

In terms of the wider administrative requirements, Canvas allows, I think, for more consistently completed student feedback at the end of a given course and collating that information online is much more efficiently handled than via a hard copy format.  Suffice to say, the tutor portal and Canvas are separate entities but as a tutor you take resources and information from the one and transfer to the other. 

Canvas has allowed for a quantum-leap in my engagement and delivery of teaching and learning.  

Is it fair and accurate to say that at its best technology can democratise learning …it’s a broad claim and there are reservations and caveats to that, without question. Clearly, the major limitation of Canvas is in terms of our students who may have no digital capacities at all. I think it is often assumed that everyone now has digital connection at home and that is clearly not the case. The broader sweep of the pandemic has exposed these inequalities (along with so many others in the past year). 

Finally, and I am sure I am not the only tutor to note this, but a number of students have made the refrain that by virtue of WEA offering courses online they are now able to enrol on courses that they would otherwise not be able to simply as a matter of geography/  

As a final note, I wonder, too, if online delivery might open up and offer new opportunity for tutors for whom leaving their own homes is, for whatever reason, a challenge or a severe difficulty.  

For me, then, Canvas has utterly transformed by experience as a WEA tutor. I have never enjoyed the process of teaching for WEA so much and I feel like I engage much more with the entire process.  

I’ll end on this note: I’m a tutor based in the Eastern region and Zoom has allowed for a much more collegiate dynamic to develop via the tutor drop-in session within our region.  

If you watch enough tv you’ll see that technology is pretty much always advertised by emphasising not the hardware but the way that it impacts on our very best emotions and our sense of self. My experience of going into the digital realm with Canvas and Zoom suggests that there is a new sense of belonging, connection to each other and pedagogic potential (how’s that for alliteration?) at hand for tutors and, for the students, there are fresh opportunities to dive into the digital realm and find that suddenly at hand are courses that might once have been out of reach.  

About James 

James has been a WEA tutor since 2015 and he specialises in teaching courses about cinema and about literature. Prior to his work for the WEA, James worked extensively in Higher Education and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. James also works as a writer. His latest book is due to be published in April 2021 and is entitled Caine: Photographed by Terry O’Neill