More than 1,600 staff and faculty from the University of Waterloo gathered in front of their computer screens in mid-May to hear from senior officials, including President Feridun Hamdullahpur and associate provost of human resources Marilyn Thompson, about how the institution plans to navigate the pandemic in the months ahead, especially in light of a return to in-person classes in the fall.
“Will you make accommodations for people who feel uncomfortable with returning to campus this fall? Will all classes have an online delivery method as well as an in-person option?” came the questions from participants. “How will the university support international students who may be stuck in their home countries while campus opens up more to in-person?”
There were no easy answers. But the event highlighted some of the difficult discussions that are underway at universities across the country on how decisions are made about the mode of delivery for course material, and whether the past year is shifting that calculation.
David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says the pandemic caused a break with “custom and practice” at universities in the country by forcing administrators to make sweeping changes, with little dialogue, as they scrambled to switch to emergency remote learning.
“In March of 2020, it was clear that we had to make decisions quickly,” Mr. Robinson says. “But when we talked about what we were going to do in the fall semester, many faculty felt they weren’t adequately consulted.”
The focus now is on how that dynamic will evolve for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year. He says there’s still a lot of debate among his association’s 70,000 members. Many believe it’s more effective to return to the classroom because, for example, they may find it easier to gauge whether students are grasping the course material.
Loren Falkenberg, former senior associate dean at the University of Calgary’s business school, argues that while the quick shift away from the classroom was challenging, universities should preserve the advantages it has presented. For example, she says online learning can be more efficient by reducing transition time between classes. It can allow for more flexibility too. Offering asynchronous content, for instance, can free up time for faculty to mentor their students.
Dr. Falkenberg says another lesson from the past year is that postsecondary institutions need to be thinking strategically about how to deal with the financial and demographic challenges that they have been facing for years.
“COVID[-19] really increased the need for universities to be planning five years out, and one of the reasons is that it’s really hard for them to change course quickly,” she says. “The university leaders who say, ‘we’ve got to get ahead of this, we have to prepare our faculty to optimize the learning experience, we’re going to give you a lot of resources,’ those are the universities that are going to be really sustainable five years from now. The universities that are standing back going, ‘we have to get back to face-to-face, this is our bread and butter,’ I think they’re going to take a hit.”
Balance and co-operative decision-making
One of the institutions she points to as a positive example is Victoria’s Royal Roads University, which combines online learning with short-term residencies on campus geared toward working professionals.
George Veletsianos, a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology at Royal Roads, says the pandemic has made clear for many people that online and blended learning allows more students to continue working or caring for their family while studying.
He also cautions against being absolutist about the mode of delivery — opting for 100 per cent in-person instruction or online — rather than thinking about what combination of teaching tools is best for students at a particular university.
“It’s both challenging for these decisions to be top-down and it’s also challenging for these decisions to be relying on an individual faculty member’s individual class. So there needs to be some sort of a balance and some sort of a cooperative decision-making process,” Dr. Veletsianos says. “What that looks like at different institutions is really hard to say.”
Another concern is that many of those studying online during the pandemic have found the experience isolating, says Marie Dolcetti-Koros, national treasurer at the Canadian Federation of Students. That’s partly why she believes it’s important to have student representation on administrative bodies making decisions about the mode of course delivery, and to advocate for accommodations such as compassionate grading and flexible deadlines at least until the virus threat abates.
“It’s currently very much a top-down model from university administrators, communicated down to faculty and then to students,” she says. “But going forward into what will likely be another academic year like this, we’re in a situation where I think lines of communication really need to be open all the time and university administrators should be consulting with faculty, staff and students, and including those stakeholders in these decisions.”