Post-secondary institutions in Canada have been offering online courses for over 20 years.
But this September most brick-and-mortar institutions will transition to more online learning as part of a sweeping pandemic overhaul.
The University of British Columbia is no exception. Last month, president Santa J. Ono announced the fall semester would largely consist of online courses. In-person learning is restricted to courses with no more than 50 physically distanced students, research projects, labs or clinical placements.
“UBC’s approach will allow us to deliver high-quality teaching and learning — while ensuring the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” reads Ono’s May 11 letter on the university’s website.
But the massive shift away from classrooms to online education has created anxiety the university needs to address, says Cole Evans, president of the students’ union, the Alma Mater Society.
“We’ve heard concerns from students that they’re not going to get the same quality of learning experience, that their personal university experience is going to be hindered,” Evans said. Incoming first-year students have concerns about their transition to university, he added.
Many international students still do not know if they will return to Canada by September, Evans said. Or how they can take online courses if they’re in a significantly different time zone.
The students’ society has been pressing the university to ensure they’re addressing these issues “by continuing to allocate support to essential student services here at the university and coming up with comprehensive plans for that transition to online learning,” he said.
UBC is still developing its fall plans as faculty prepare online courses and health and safety measures are put in place.
While there are many unknowns about what the fall semester will look like, here’s what we do know about how the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus will operate — and perhaps an idea of what students at other institutions can expect.
(Almost) all classes will be online
Except for small classes, labs, research work and clinical placements, the majority of courses will be online.
An early survey of student opinions by campus newspaper the Ubyssey found most of the over 360 students who responded were not keen about online learning.
Instead they felt an “obligation” to enrol in the fall for a variety of reasons including keeping scholarships or program placements, qualifying for their parents’ health insurance and wanting to graduate on time.
But a switch to online learning is good news for some students, said Tony Bates, the former director of Distance Education and Technology in the Continuing Studies division of UBC.
“It doesn’t suit all students, but the older, the more mature and the more independent learners are, the better it suits them,” said Bates.
Bathseba Opini, a UBC instructor with the department of educational studies, has taught online. While there are disadvantages, such as barriers to connecting with the instructor, online learning has benefits, too, she said.
“Students bring their own knowledge into the class; some are self-directed in their learning,” Opini said. “Hopefully, with the right supports in place, students can continue to create their own community online and develop friendships, relationships and peer mentorship in these spaces to advance their learning.”
Will Shelling, who finished his political science degree at the university last semester, begins his master's in public policy and global affairs at UBC this fall. While he prefers being in a classroom, online courses will not stop him.
“While you don’t necessarily get the same experience, you cannot devalue the fact that it is a university education, and also it’s a wealth-building opportunity,” he said.
“I’m a Black Canadian myself, and so I was raised with the understanding that school is the most important thing, because of obviously lifting folks out of poverty, but also giving you access to those spaces in the ivory tower.”
The earlier students know which classes will be in person, the better, says Julia Burnham, a recent bachelor of arts grad. Burnham begins her educational studies master’s program at UBC this fall.
“Then students have months to prepare. Which is the best-case scenario, so people can plan and learn,” said Burnham.
Some faculties and departments have already let students know which classes are online. But not all of them.
“In terms of educational studies, I never actually got an email from the department that explicitly said that all of the classes would be online,” Burnham said. “I had to reach out to my supervisor and figure that out.”
Tuition is still going up
One thing that remains the same at UBC is annual tuition fee increases.
Effective May 1, domestic tuition increased by two per cent, while international student tuition increased by two to four per cent, depending on the program.
Evans says the student union is always against raising tuition fees. But since it’s a done deal, they are pushing the administration for more student supports in return.
“It is clear that students need to see the value that they’re paying for tuition, as opposed to the university just collecting it and proceeding as normal,” he said, adding the union recently submitted a list of student priorities to the board of governors. “So that students feel that increased tuition is justifiable from a student experience standpoint.”
In partnership with the university’s Graduate Student Society and the Planning and Institutional Research Office, the Alma Mater Society has conducted its own student survey to identify students' needs, concerns and priorities for the fall. Evans says they plan to publish the responses later this summer.
Money is one support students will definitely need, Shelling said.
“Needs-based grants and funding for students who are going to be negatively impacted by COVID-19,” he said.
“For instance, if we’re looking at a student who is low-income, we’re seeing such a shift from the way these folks have learned, because of the fact that instead of having a computer or tablet at home, they need to go into the library to submit their assignments or write their papers. And we can’t access those services right now, which is really unfortunate.”
There are supports for students
With donations from the public and university entities like the Alma Mater Society, the University of British Columbia made $3.5 million available for emergency student funding this spring.
Expenses covered include rent, technology, childcare, travel, groceries, health care and lost wages. Funding will not cover tuition, discretionary expenses like gym memberships, or family expenses.
But whether you receive funding and how much is determined on a case-by-case basis. Wherever there are strict criteria for student funding, Opini says, some students in need miss out.
“It is challenging for students as many of them do part-time jobs to support themselves and their families,” she said. “There are not many jobs out there right now. So it may be difficult to make ends meet.”
Opini says the university should partner with an internet provider to offer students a discount. It should also cover the cost of software and antivirus protection for students’ home computers.
Other supports that existed pre-pandemic will still be in place, though online. These include free open online textbooks for first- and second-year courses; access to library catalogues, counselling services, food services for students who continue to live on campus, and the Alma Mater Society’s tutoring program, which moved online last year.
Paid teaching assistant positions, typically filled by graduate students, will also return in the fall, provided undergraduate enrolment does not drop.
For Indigenous students, the First Nations House of Learning is trying to keep a strong connection to culture and community despite the fact its programming — including a week of welcoming activities for students starting or returning to university, social events, academic talks and the Indigenous students’ graduation ceremony — will all be online instead of taking place in their offices or the university’s First Nations Longhouse.
“For instance, [the Longhouse] would have beading activities, and now they’re doing it online by purchasing the materials, and either sending them out or they come by and pick it up, and virtually together they will learn how to bead,” said Margaret Moss, director of the First Nations House of Learning.
“We do recognize that even in regular times, without a pandemic, Indigenous students need to have supports available — they can use them as they need or wish to. Now it’s going to be even more important, since they’re losing place, to have more on the community building side.”
The university has also launched Keep Learning UBC, a website to help students prepare for a virtual post-secondary experience. It offers tips on how to set up your workspace, study, find funding, take care of yourself and get support.
Instructors are encouraged to extend compassion to students when courses resume in the fall.
Matthew Ramsey, a UBC spokesperson, said the university had implemented a number of “safety nets” for students when courses went online in the spring, including the ability to decide not to record a percentage grade, instead receiving a credit, D (marginal pass) or fail. Students could also choose to withdraw from a course after it was completed to avoid a poor grade.
“Measures for fall are under consideration,” he said.
“The Centre for Accessibility is reviewing the need to adjust accommodations for students with disabilities to account for additional barriers/impacts resulting from the pandemic,” Ramsey added.
Ramsey said the university is asking faculty to include a blend of live lectures — that are recorded — and activities students can do on their own schedule to allow access for students in other time zones. As well, instructors are being asked to limit student participation credits for attending live classes and scheduling live classes in the evening to accommodate students in Japan, China and South Korea, he added.
There are supports for faculty, too
Taking a course that’s meant for in-person delivery to an online platform is not easy. Especially if you’re not technologically inclined.
But there is help available. Some university faculty have already created an optional online transition guideline for other instructors to use that will come out later this month.
The guide is based on approaching course adaptation with compassion and care for all involved, using Universal Design for Learning principles to accessibility for all students and accommodating students' unequal access to technology.
The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s Remote Teaching Institute offers tutorials and templates for instructors transitioning to online courses. And similar to their website for students, UBC has launched the Keep Teaching UBC website with tips and tutorials for transitioning online.
Opini wants instructors to consider their course materials and how easy it is for students to contact them.
“We can start by asking ourselves questions like, how do I make my online classroom feel like a safe space that’s welcoming, that’s accessible for these students to learn? What does my curriculum look like?” she said.
“If it doesn’t include the scholarship from diverse individuals — Indigenous, Black, other racialized members — that in itself will make some students feel like they don’t belong.”
The university has learned lessons about what works and what doesn’t in online learning. For example, software like Proctorio helps instructors watch students during exams and tracks their eye and body movements to detect cheating. It can even tell if another person is in the room.
But that’s a problem for some students. “For example, students with chronic health conditions may require frequent access to a washroom or the ability to move positions during exams,” Ramsey said. “In other cases, students may have rituals or routines associated with their disability or their coping strategies and may not want their instructor or teaching assistant to invigilate their exam.”
Instead, the campus’ Centre for Accessibility may supervise students’ exams when they need accommodations for disabilities. Alternate arrangements for exam delivery are also available.
A work in progress
The spring and summer have been testing grounds for the university’s transition to online learning. But the fall/winter semester will mean more courses, more students and more room for error in a new reality.
While the university could refer to plans for the 2003 SARS outbreak to design its pandemic cleaning protocol, it had no plan for long-term online courses. Even in the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19, classes were only cancelled for five weeks.
Opini says the university should be gathering more data on how students are doing, and where they need more support.
“We will need to hear students’ perspectives in order to fully understand any challenges they may face and how to support them,” she said.
Evans says the students’ union is urging the university to consult students and give them a seat at decision-making tables.
They play a role in “ensuring faculty are recognizing the constraints that students are under, and moving forward, making sure that students don’t feel hindered in their academic performance by just the fact that we’re moving online.”