Connections vital in online climate course

professor Katrina Moser

Professor Katrina Moser values connections in her course on climate change.

Normally, on the first day of her class on climate change, professor Katrina Moser’s students play Jeopardy. Moser designs the game with an environmental spin, then displays it on a big screen as an ice-breaker for the 120 new students who fill her classroom each term.

Of course, these aren’t normal times. As part of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Moser’s class will take place online this fall, which means there will be no physical classroom – and no Jeopardy.

But the icebreaker idea lives on.

“I’ll do a scavenger hunt. It might not work, but I’m trying the best I can to get people talking to each other,” said Moser, adding she plans to invite the entire class to a Zoom video-conferencing session and put them into small groups in breakout rooms for the activity.

I think connections are so important: between me and the students, the students and each other, and the students and the course material.” ~ Professor Katrina Moser

As Moser has transitioned the popular second-year course to an online version this summer – one of hundreds of Western instructors making innovative course changes in a pivot to remote learning under extraordinary circumstances – she has worked to make her classes personal, interactive and connected.

She gained a preview of how it might work when in-person classes ended abruptly last March and she moved an important class discussion to an online forum with several moderated group conversations.

“I think they were even better than in-person,” said Moser. In a large classroom, a few students do most of the talking, she said; in the new format, every student submitted a text response.

“It gave more students the opportunity to speak and to put their ideas out there. And that benefits everybody,” she said. “It just gives more perspective.”

In fact, participation levels skyrocketed, said student Sanjana Arora, who took on a moderator role for the discussion. “A lot of people shared their views that might not have in class. It allowed everyone to share what they learned from the challenge.”

Like many Western instructors, Moser spent the summer recording her lectures with help from the Centre for Teaching and Learning. While all the lectures may be available in September, she hopes students will log in for planned lectures on Tuesdays, then join smaller group discussions via video conference on Thursdays. She has scheduled the discussions in a way that will allow her to meet with each student in a small group setting at least twice this term before the final exam, which is planned for open-book, online format.

There are challenges, especially for teachers who aim to get to know as many students as possible each term.

In class, Moser said she’s “constantly watching” for cues from her students to make sure she is getting the information out effectively. “I ask a lot of questions. It’s really hard to replace that personal interaction online.”

She is hopeful the small-group meetings and pre-recorded lectures will make her even more available to provide support when possible.

Moser is also introducing a reflective journal this year to help students think about how they feel about what they are learning during this “difficult time,” she said.

Positive reflection is a focus of her capstone project, the Climate Change Challenge, which requires students to calculate their carbon footprint and do something to decrease that footprint for three weeks.

“They take individual action and that shifts you from this place of being depressed to thinking, ‘I can do something,’” said Moser, who stopped driving to work in favour of cycling as part of her own Climate Change Challenge in the winter of 2018 and has cycled ever since.

professor Katrina Moser

Professor Katrina Moser stops for a selfie after riding her bike to work in April 2018. (supplied photo)

Last year, one student persuaded her household to stop using the dryer for three weeks. Another stopped eating red meat and decreased his time in showers, running water for only 30 seconds (he turned it off to wash).

“It was probably my gateway to seeing what we are actually doing to our planet,” said Arora, who cut out disposable cups for her challenge. “Since then, my life has changed.”

Fortunately, the Climate Change Challenge doesn’t need to be redesigned to fit the online class format because it has always been an independent, outside-of-class project.

Moser said the capstone is more relevant than ever this year. It’s meant to show how action can make change, which is something that has been demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement, which swept North America following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.

“It just shows that individuals can make a difference,” said Moser.  “That’s a hopeful message when you are looking at climate change.”

The coordinated responses to COVID-19 also send a strong signal to the world about what’s possible when there is a collaborative effort to respond to crises, she said.

Sanjana Arora poses with her Climate Change Challenge supplies: Everything she needed to brew her own coffee.

Sanjana Arora poses with her Climate Change Challenge supplies: Everything she needed to brew her own coffee. (supplied photo)



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