York teaching assistant excels in borderless classrooms

Students in the Dadaab Refugee Camp work on an assignment for their studies with York University
Students in the Dadaab Refugee Camp work on an assignment for their studies with York University

Even though she had previously worked as a teaching assistant (TA), Reena Shadaan had an entirely new experience conducting classes online for students in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Reena Shadaan

Shadaan, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, was the 2018 recipient of York University’s President’s University-Wide Teaching Award in the teaching assistant category, earning kudos for her online teaching prowess.

Although Shadaan is currently teaching an on-campus course, from 2016 to 2018 she led tutorials for an undergraduate course, Introduction to Social Economy, in partnership with the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) program. BHER provides access to post-secondary education for students living in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya. The students based in Dadaab and Kakuma took the course alongside York classmates, accessing the course from computer labs located in their communities. They watched lectures, attended tutorials via Skype, accessed readings and films, researched and worked on their assignments in the labs.

“When you are teaching online, you have to be creative,” Shadaan said. “Compared to in-person teaching, it’s not as easy to build a participatory learning environment in online contexts. You need to use different methods to facilitate discussion, build supportive environments and engage the students.”

Students in the Dadaab Refugee Camp work on an assignment for their course, which they take alongside York University students

Shadaan loves teaching because it allows her to help students form and shape ideas.

“I love the critical engagement and collaborative learning that happens in class,” she said. “It’s a dynamic, collective knowledge-creation space. By that I mean understanding that everyone has knowledge and experience to contribute. As we reflect, build upon and even challenge each other’s contributions, this leads to new insights – for the students, but also for me as a TA.

“A big part of this aim is ensuring that the classroom is a space where students feel supported and have a sense of ownership. This is so important for first-year students and first-generation students, as well as students who feel that they’re not welcome in the university environment due to broader oppressions. Part of teaching is affirming to these students that their experiences, knowledges and perspectives are important, and not just worthy of the academic environment, but essential to building the academic environments we want.”

The online course was very dependent on technology. Because access to the internet was at times difficult, and not all students could go to the computer lab on a daily basis, Shadaan opened communication through a class WhatsApp group – a practice common amongst BHER TAs, as all the students have cellphones. She also relied heavily on Moodle, York’s online learning management system.

“I wanted to make sure there was a central hub where the recorded lectures, readings and key discussion questions were available to the students, so they could go through the material step-by-step,” Shadaan said. “Students were able to post their thoughts about the material and their responses to questions. We would go into more of an in-depth discussion during Skype tutorials. They knew the key questions to reflect on in advance and had the opportunity to discuss them with each other, too – in person, and through the Moodle forums.”

As wonderful as technology can be for teaching, Shadaan did discover drawbacks.

“If the technology fails, there are big problems,” she said. “In addition, participation is really important to me. I want the tutorial sessions to be a forum where everyone is comfortable sharing. It’s harder to build the environment necessary for that when you’re not physically present.”

She also had to be mindful of the challenges the students faced and she worked with the professor, Caroline Shenaz Hossein, to ensure obstacles were overcome. For example, there were instances of flooding, which made it is difficult or impossible for students to get to the computer lab to access the course materials.

“There are so many different challenges the students face as a result of being displaced, so you have to be flexible,” Shadaan said. “I learned a lot about teaching online from this experience. For example, I know how important communication is; the students need to know you’re there to support their learning.”

Shadaan was thrilled to win the President’s University-Wide Teaching Award.

“It was a big surprise to win a university-wide award with so many great educators across the campus,” she said.

It was no surprise to her nominators, however.

“Reena is in a league of her own when it comes to TAing because she goes beyond what is expected and she strives to give her students the very best academic experience,” wrote one of them.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus