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This fall, many instructors are teaching the pandemic

Several universities have introduced new courses or adapted existing ones to instruct students on the complex dynamics of COVID-19.

BY SHARON ASCHAIEK | OCT 12 2020

A number of universities in Canada have introduced courses or adapted existing ones to address the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to convulse the globe. Offered online by a range of disciplines, they are helping students to understand how the pandemic is fundamentally reshaping our way of life by illuminating its complex health, social, cultural, economic, legal and political dynamics.

COVID-19 & Society is a new fourth-year sociology course at the University of British Columbia that examines how the pandemic is affecting our families, work lives, and health and education institutions. Rolled out this past summer – it attracted 180 students – and on offer again this fall, it also looks at how the virus has affected the way we socialize, its implications for capitalism and the environment, and the uneven impacts on women, racialized groups and the elderly. Among the experts lecturing is a leading gerontology researcher discussing how ageism in Canada’s elder care system has contributed to higher infection rates among long-term care home residents. For the main assignment, teams of students worked with local non-profits to develop infographics that communicated important COVID-19 information to their clients, employees or the public.

“The pandemic is making all of us feel out of control. One way to gain it back is by influencing the environment through activities that have real-world relevance and utility,” says course instructor Katherine Lyon, an assistant professor of teaching at UBC.

At the other end of the country, Dalhousie University is gamifying COVID-19 learning with the real-time, simulation-based course Pandemic! The Class based on the board game Pandemic by Z-Man Games. Offered jointly by the department of international development studies and the school of public administration, the 10-module course involves students participating in pandemic prevention and management teams tasked with eradicating four diseases to prevent a global calamity. Role-playing as scientists, medics, researchers and quarantine specialists, they must work together to make decisions about how to invest in strategies such as researching vaccines, quarantining citizens and conducting military medical responses.

“As for the simulation, there will be a strong development of team-collaboration, and intra-team collaboration skills,” says the designer of the course, Robert Huish, an associate professor in the department of international development studies, speaking to Dal News. “I’d like to think that greater international policy collaboration is something that we can all bring to the fight against pandemics.”

Pandemic! The Class, a game-based course offered at Dalhousie University, emphasizes working collaboratively to prevent a plague.

Meanwhile, some social sciences professors at the University of Saskatchewan are augmenting curricula for some of their courses to include COVID-19 content. The third-year geography course Introduction to Demography deals with the coronavirus within the context of historical plagues and how they affect population changes. Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Health and Illness, a second-year anthropology course, looks at different evolutionary, interpretive and ethnomedical approaches to new and emerging infectious diseases.

“In medical anthropology, we can learn a lot about how we might contain the coronavirus by studying macro-level actions to mitigate the spread of diseases, and micro-level behaviours and attitudes that helped or hindered interventions,” says instructor Susanna Barnes, a social anthropologist and assistant professor in the College of Arts and Science at U of S. Students are asked to reflect on their own pandemic experience, and can submit their journals to the university’s COVID-19 Community Archive, a collection of documents from faculty, students, journalists, historians and writers meant to provide original source material for researchers.

Pandemic-related courses are also gaining momentum in Ontario. Among them is COVID-19 Responsive Art, a third-year cross-disciplinary course at OCAD University featuring a mix of coronavirus-inspired artmaking plus analysis of other artists’ responses to similar crises. Three others concentrate on the legal and political aspects of COVID-19: Law and Politics of the COVID Pandemic at Algoma University, Politics of Pandemics at McMaster University and The Law of Pandemics at the University of Toronto.

U of T is also inviting students to consider a new way to approach COVID-19 with How to Live in a Pandemic, a third-year, two-semester course from the Scarborough campus’ new department of health and society that embraces “radical interdisciplinarity.” Co-instructors Andrea Charise and Ghazal Fazli have developed a curriculum that explores the role of the arts, social sciences and humanities in shaping innovative and equitable health-care solutions for deeply complex epidemiological events. A variety of creative multimedia materials – poetry, short films, podcasts, visual art, journal entries – elucidate the relevant social, economic and political determinants of health. A viral thinking assignment engages students in reflecting on how the virus has influenced their perspective on their primary discipline.

“COVID-19 is a profoundly dynamic, multi-sectoral, political, economic and social phenomenon,” Dr. Charise says. “If we are teaching the next generation of health and medical professionals within a singular discipline of, say, epidemiology or virology, we will only get solutions that address small boxes of knowledge.”

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