As an experienced psychiatric nurse and instructor in Herzing’s Community Support Worker (CSW) program, Kim Melnyk was used to having lots of in-person interactions with students and people in recovery. She wasn’t the biggest fan of technology; she much preferred a more personal touch.
So when COVID came along and forced her to shift to teaching online, she had to make some major adjustments.
Initially, Kim was very much looking forward to a return to class post-pandemic. But when it started to occur, she found that it did not solve the problems she thought it would. Instead, she found herself doing more and more interaction online—and discovering benefits she had never considered before.
We spoke with her recently to learn more about her experience.
Q. Kim, can you share a bit about your professional background?
Kim: I’m trained as a psychiatric nurse. I graduated in the early ‘90s when there wasn’t a nursing shortage; in fact, they were cutting nursing positions and restructuring. So I kind of fell into community nursing by accident. I created a lot of psychoeducational programming, which sparked my interest in education.
I started teaching the Community Support Worker program at Herzing in January 2020—and three months in, I had to go online.
Q. You had no love of technology, and most students who take CSW training are looking to actively interact with people. How did the initial transition to online go?
Kim: Most students wanted to be in the classroom; they missed that support. It naturally evolved into a bit of a debriefing where people were bringing their anxieties and their struggles with managing the transition from classroom to online. We made a commitment to get through that together.
A lot of people didn’t even have the proper technology when they started. People were trying to upload assignments and submissions on their phones, for instance. We drew on a lot of peer support, with students saying, “This is how I do it. It doesn’t work when I use my iPad, but it does work when I use my laptop.”
Sorting all that stuff out as a team has been a great experience because as community support workers, we’re often placed on clinical teams where we have to debrief or transfer information during a shift change. So it’s been a really great way of implementing that practical piece.
People often come into this work because they have a passion for helping people, usually because they’ve gone through their own struggles or are going through their own struggles. I feel like that recovery and mental health model has organically worked its way into our program in trying to manage the struggles of moving from classroom to online.
Q. How did you adapt your approach as an instructor?
Kim: We were all learning the technology by trial and error, so I would always validate the students. I’d say you have to be good communicators to be in this career, so how can we communicate in all these different ways? I’m respectfully challenging you to find ways with this platform to achieve what you’re identifying as missing. What do we have to do to move forward? What is different from how we used to participate in class?
For example, a lot of people weren’t turning their cameras on, so we unpacked that. How does it feel different when we have our cameras on?
Some people didn’t have the technology to be able to share. They’d be on data and couldn’t open their video. So we would have those kinds of conversations. How can we support you to make this platform work for you?
It was a lot of troubleshooting and open communication and meeting people where they’re at. And of course, these are skills that will serve the students well in community support work.
Q. What was the response when in-person classes resumed?
Kim: A lot of students were saying they couldn’t wait to get back to class. I facilitated my online class in the classroom to see how many people would show up, but the biggest class I got was three people. So even though they were saying they wanted to go back to class, it wasn’t happening. Many people had jobs and couldn’t be there at a certain time, for instance.
I realized that the flexibility and accessibility of online classes allowed me to reach many more students than had ever been possible before.
Q. How do you conduct online classes now?
Kim: When classes were in person, it was more directed and less empowering. Somebody could just sit there, and even if they weren’t listening they could probably retain enough to pass the true-or-false part of a quiz.
Online, we have discussion posts based on the readings. Every student has to respond to at least two posts. That gets the dialogue going, and then people are learning more and it’s a richer experience.
With online classes, I can’t see if you’re doing your work, so you need to be accountable in different ways. It’s working because people are accepting the challenge. They’re excited to let everybody else know what they learned.
That said, I need to know what’s working and what’s not. I can’t just assume that if I’m talking, students are listening and understanding. So I need them to communicate with me. And learning to communicate is going to help them in their life and in their career.
Q. What have you come to realize about the benefits of online education?
Kim: One of the major advantages of online learning is that I can reach students I was never able to connect with before. I have people from all over Canada in the class.
But that also brings up new issues. For instance, I had one student who was in B.C. We recently had a test and I had been telling everyone that midnight would be the cut-off time. But midnight for me was only 10 pm for him, which hadn’t occurred to me. So I had to extend the time for him.
I have to challenge myself to communicate better because sometimes I don’t know where people are until they tell me. I can’t just assume we all have the same frame of reference.
Q. What would you say to a student who was considering the CSW program but was nervous about the online aspect?
Kim: I would say that we’re here to support you. If I can’t help you manage it, your peers will be able to. We also have a great IT department that you can access anytime.
You’ll learn how to do things that you’ll be required to do throughout your career. Communicating and connecting online is a life skill now. Many of our students are finding that they’re in a practicum and they’re having to have Zoom meetings with people. And now they know how to do it.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ONLINE COMMUNITY SUPPORT WORKER PROGRAM
The online Community Support Worker program from Herzing College Winnipeg takes just 12 months to complete. Volunteer work and a seven-week internship are built into the training, and instructors are always available to answer questions, talk through assignments, and provide support.
Click below to get full program details.