Professor Ilsa Wong, Tory Paulence, Donald Austin

Instructor in the Department of Kinesiology & Physical Education since 1998 and co-chair of the department since 2007, Ilsa Wong went above and beyond to bring her students a meaningful learning experience last fall. Her innovation led to professional recognition for her class, with seven students awarded commemorative coins recognizing their contributions to the advancement of gender equality. This project's success has positive implications for the future of online learning and professional development.

When the University of Lethbridge shifted to online learning, so did Kinesiology 3300, Wong's leadership and coaching class. "This was a class we asked as a department whether we could actually teach," Wong notes, explaining that she instructs her regular in-person class through the medium of cooperative games. She wondered whether there was a way she "could allow students to interact independently but still accomplish something and take something from this experience." Rather than settle for a less immersive format, Wong asked, "what are some projects that would work?" After some digging, she found an answer.

Last year, the University of Lethbridge signed on to the Riipen platform, which connects schools to organizations and immerses students in industry projects. Through Riipen, students gain professional skills through experiential learning opportunities, which can be fit directly into their classroom curriculum. After attending the Riipen workshop, Wong was hopeful, stating, "When this project came up over the summer, I realized it could be one way to incorporate some more of those contact pieces, which I feel are important." She later added, "I thought it would be the perfect opportunity."

Wong was assigned a Riipen consultant and started to search for potential projects. At first, she found many projects tilted towards the management and business aspects of leadership, rather than sport. While she acknowledges that leadership skills "can be used in any dimension," she had hoped for a more curriculum-related experience. However, after some time, Wong came across iSAW, an organization that promotes gender equality.

iSAW stands for international Smart Advancing Women, with their global launch planned for March of this year. Wong explained why this was a fit, stating, "one of the pieces that we talk about at the end of our course is leadership and diversity. We do a section on gender, race and ethnicity. That was the angle I originally took with the iSAW project." Wong adds that the executive director of iSAW, Nancy Speidel, was "looking for a class to help build their GRID (Gender Research and Insight Data), a database that allows for information sharing and infographics." Through her assigned Riipen consultant, iSAW accepted Wong's class and the project began.

Tory Paulence, a third-year kinesiology and physical education student, has always been passionate about studying sports and leadership areas. Her portion of the project entailed researching differences in leadership styles used by males and females. Tory adds that "there is lots of research done on leadership style differences between genders in the business world. I made an effort to try and find articles related to sport, female leaders specifically in other countries and the impacts of female leaders during a global pandemic."

ISAW provided students with colour tablets, photo databases and materials to complete their research. Students created infographics or specific data points for the GRID database. On top of this, students wrote 50-200-word iSAW Sharp Pieces, which are straightforward summaries of information, linked to longer descriptions or articles on the iSAW website. For Tory, a big takeaway was the research she collected about a company in Saudi Arabia. Tory explained that "in 2015 the company had 84 female leaders and prior they only had three to four, so more workplaces are recognizing the importance of inclusive environments." Another exciting takeaway for Tory was that she "didn't know Jen Welter was the first female NFL coach in the league. Since then, the league has continuously recognized female leaders in a highly male-dominated organization."

Fourth-year kinesiology and physical education student Donald Austen explained the GRID as a database of information, which provides access to digestible pieces of information, helping women advance themselves in leadership roles. Through his experience, Donald now agrees, "I think everybody has the potential for leadership, and this course confirmed that." Donald aspires to be a physical education teacher and this experience has given him a different understanding of online learning. "I definitely see the benefit of at least trying to put information in every corner of the world," he notes. Donald remarks on the benefit of providing women with iSAW memberships and explains that "giving people education in a specific area and providing that opportunity to others was just as important as adding information to the website."

After months of research, each of the five student groups compiled their best five to seven articles and examples into a video. The iSAW board met and voted on which submissions were best. iSAW was impressed with the results and awarded the top seven students and Wong commemorative coins and four more students received certificates to recognize their significant contributions to the advancement of Gender Equality.

Tory's group video submission received first place, as well as her article submission. Donald received a commemorative coin as well for his first-place infographic. Wong was impressed with these unexpected medals and pleased with this project's results. In addition to coins, iSAW invited the class to return in the fall, provided students with one-year iSAW memberships and LinkedIn recognition. Donald adds that his biggest takeaways are the skills and knowledge he learned about "collecting information, processing it and getting it ready to present to someone who doesn't know about it in a real-world setting. Also, my group was really good."

Although hesitant at first and not knowing what to expect, Tory affirms she would "definitely participate in this again." Unlike some, Tory has found the switch to online learning "fairly easy" as she prefers group work, presentations and writing papers. Many of her classes have shifted away from exams this year, and Tory "really appreciated the opportunity to work online." Donald agrees. "It actually made me think of online learning really differently," he notes, adding that "before this, it was sort of log into zoom, leave your microphone and camera off, don't let anybody know you're there. This was the first time I had to turn my microphone and camera on. It was a really big shift, but I realized this was just a different way of communicating and if you can do this properly and well, it's just as beneficial as communicating in a real-world setting."

To future students, Tory has a clear message. "Remember, your journey is your own. I've been in school now for eight years." She adds that "regardless of the path you're on, it's essential to keep in mind that you're learning every day," and most of all, "don't take learning for granted." In terms of group work, Donald advises, "communicate with your group really early. Check your email every day. If they haven't emailed you, email them. A group is like a ship, and if the ship is leaking, you're all going down. If you're the leak in the ship, then definitely find out what you can do. Being part of the puzzle is better than being a puzzle piece outside of the puzzle figuring out what to do."

This project's success is one example of how online learning can lead to new opportunities. When asked how this project has changed her perspective, Tory declares, "it has definitely improved my online learning experience. If it wasn't for COVID, I might not have had the opportunity to work with the iSAW team and Nancy, located in places outside of Canada."

Thanks to the dedication of faculty and staff like Wong, our students have the opportunity to gain immersive, real-world experience and professional connections even during difficult times.