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Extending the ‘new normal’: Enrica Piccardo shifts OISE graduate courses online to great effect

May 5, 2020

By Perry King
 

Screenshot of Enrica Piccardo's online class.

In her courses on language and literacy, Professor Enrica Piccardo regularly incorporates technology that connect and engage her students. In this photo, Piccardo and her Second Language Methodologies course, students would record their conversations – which would be later be available to watch online. (Photo courtesy Enrica Piccrdo).
 

Professor Enrica Piccardo’s connection to the coronavirus pandemic is personal and deeply felt.

She has family in the North of Italy facing the crisis, and many of her students have family doing the same in China and in Iran. As the former head of international relations for her faculty in France, she is used to following closely what is happening in the world.

The pandemic has been front and centre to all of those countries – and it factored into her decision to be “proactive, rather than reactive,” when it came to managing her courses in the Language and Literacies Program at OISE, she said. She quickly transferred her courses online – the Research Colloquium and the Language Assessment course – well before the University of Toronto decided centrally to cancel classes, and deliver teaching and learning through other means, in early March.

The course ended in early April with profound success.

“In the back of our minds – mine and my students’ – there was always this worry because it’s such a scary virus and situation,” said Piccardo, who teaches and researches within OISE’s department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning. “I found that the new normal was kind of extending the normal we had before.”

Piccardo had always integrated some form of technology or distance communication into her curriculum for students who could not attend sessions. Her courses were “blended,” with many online elements like class recordings, assignments and streamed lectures available online.

Through Zoom, for example, participants from abroad could and did check in, including from Iran – Piccardo is accustomed to regularly speaking and advising her students across different time zones even late at night or early in the morning.

With these two courses, Piccardo and her students had to move quickly. Rebecca Schmor, a Masters of Education student in Language and Literacies Education who took the research colloquium this semester, recalls when her class had to transition. “I remember Enrica explaining her reasoning with us during our first fully-online class, sharing how the situation in Italy had escalated, and even saying at the time that we could well foresee a real surge in the United States (which had not yet occurred),” she told OISE News.

The students were already familiar with Zoom, so the transition was smoother than as is sometimes the case. In her Research Colloquium, earlier in the semester presenters joined in on Zoom from other universities, and students interacted with them. Scholars in other time zones also contributed shared pre-recorded presentations. All presentations were made available as recordings after class. Many students took advantage of the remote attendance option when they needed to stay home with sick children, for example.

Schmor, who was taking her second course with Piccardo, was already comfortable with interacting with classmates (and presenters) on screen – and that comfort helped her cope with the shock of the pandemic. “We were able to present our final research proposals on Zoom and continue with presentations and discussions online,” said Schmor, who was feeling the effects of the pandemic on her daily and academic life.

“I believe the academic shift could have been a lot more challenging to navigate if the professors at OISE had not been as well prepared and supportive as they were,” she said.

“If we didn’t before, we certainly all realize now the importance of digital fluency in education, and Enrica has been a great support in scaffolding our acquisition of online learning skills,” she added.

The Research Colloquium, a required course for PhD students but open to participation for Masters students, exposes the students to a variety of types of research and, by discussing them, helps them work towards their own research. The Language Assessment course is also hands on – taking a pedagogical approach to teaching languages to students.

Many students have echoed Piccardo’s active impact in their success in the courses. Adrienne Margie, a Master of Education student who also took the Research Colloquium, thought Piccardo was essential. She was attentive and ensured everyone understood the material, said Margie – who began her time at OISE after about 26 years working in the business world.

“I found that she’s available, but at the same time, especially when all this stuff happened, she was sympathetic,” she added. “I’m still working on this one paper, because we were given an extension. I appreciated that because I can focus more on the paper – to make it a worthwhile valuable tool, because our minds are so focused on other things now.”

Schmor, who originally enrolled in Piccardo’s course Multilingualism and Plurilingualism in the fall (without realizing that it was oriented towards doctorate students), “really enjoyed the subject matter,” and “immediately felt comfortable and valued by Enrica, which led me to enroll in her research colloquium – although I am not required to take this course as an MEd student,” she said.

Before moving fully online, some last-minute work still had to be done in person. The language assessment course, for example, still required the class to work together to assess video recorded language performances. Once again technology was pivotal, here.

Integrating technology has always been essential for Piccardo’s outlook on teaching and research. “I mean, since my PhD thesis, almost 20 years ago, which was on creativity and new technologies in language education, I really saw that technology has a place,” she said. “It cannot constitute everything but it can help integrate and provide another perspective.”

Piccardo is content that her students trusted her and were sympathetic to the rapidly changing situation. “I just said, I think we should consider [moving online].  With our ties to our countries we know what the scenario here will be. It’s the end of the course, we know each other well. I don’t see many difficulties in moving the entire course online now.”

Piccardo’s facility with the online move appears also in her decision to move online the two-day Symposium on New Perspectives in Language Education, which she had organized as Head of the Centre for Educational Research in Languages and Literacies (CERLL).  

OISE Emeritus Professor Jim Cummins will be participating in the symposium which takes place on May 8 and 9 (virtually, of course).
 

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