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Stability is the most important consideration for Fall 2020

By Kristy Koehler, May 14 2020—

Across Canada, university administrators are struggling with how to go about offering classes this fall. Should students come back to campus? Should classes be offered online in lieu of in person? Perhaps a blend of the two is best — small classes in person and larger lectures online.

The University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, the University of Montreal and McGill University have said that classes will be held largely online, with labs and smaller classes potentially taking place in person pending information and directives by public health officials. The University of Calgary has yet to make a decision. 

Certainly there are a large number of factors at play, not the least of which is advice from public health authorities. Considering that the province of Alberta released final details of which businesses would be allowed to open a mere 24 hours in advance, the University of Calgary cannot rely on public health advice as its sole means of decision-making and students need a decision without delay.

The most likely scenario is that at least some level of instruction will take place online. It should all be online. That isn’t what people want to hear, but it’s what needs to happen. What absolutely cannot happen is that students begin in the classroom and end up online.

When classes moved online in mid-March, it was not an ideal situation for anyone. But, considering the amount of time that instructors and administrators had to move classes online, not to mention make significant changes in their own lives, the seamlessness with which it happened was quite remarkable. 

Chats with friends and perusing online forums indicate that some students had a terrible experience. Unfortunately, that’s to be expected. Terrible classroom experiences happen in person as well — it isn’t only a symptom of online learning. Look hard enough in any situation and you’ll find people who aren’t happy or who are facing challenges and problems. 

A common complaint that has arisen after-the-fact is the lack of uniformity. Some students had to physically attend Zoom lectures, some had to participate in group work, some professors simply posted lectures and were perceived as cutting the students too big of a break by easing their grading. The credit/fail option caused some controversy as well. It made it very easy for students to ignore their work, put in the bare minimum and then elect to simply be given credit for the course, avoiding the hit to their GPA that would normally come from slacking off. That issue was compounded by courses that still required group work — one person who knows they have the option of credit/fail can sink a whole group. And, we have yet to see how the credit/fail system will impact admissions to graduate programs. It has the potential to severely disadvantage students who put in the work right through the pandemic and until the final hour of classes. 

Problems aside, it was the right decision. The upheaval in student’s — and instructors — lives made it so that expecting academic performance to continue as if nothing had happened was impossible. Some students are parents who suddenly had no child care. Some students were self-isolating as a result of illness. Some students’ second jobs in grocery stores forced them onto the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Some were just plain scared from the steady onslaught of doom and gloom and needed a break. The option to choose credit/fail or a grade was the fairest option for the most number of people. We also can’t forget that instructors are human too and they faced their own personal challenges in reorganizing their lives with information that changed seemingly by the hour. 

The instructors I worked with maintained their standards in grading while being very flexible with deadlines and student concerns and issues, something that will forever be appreciated by not only myself but many other students. There was no guidebook for how to teach in the middle of a pandemic — the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning sure did a heck of a job in trying to create one though. 

If Fall 2020 is to be online, there are significant changes that need to be made. But, in order to do that, a decision needs to be made — and stuck to. There is time over the summer to decide on some universal standards. Do we attend classes via Zoom or listen to pre-recorded lectures? What are the circumstances for extensions and deferrals? The academic rigour of this university must be maintained, even in extenuating circumstances. 

The worst thing that can happen is a repeat of this semester. While it went exceedingly well considering the circumstances and I’m very proud of the way the institution and the instructors handled things, the upheaval in people’s lives as a result of making such a massive change in the middle of a semester cannot be overstated. It created an environment that was not in any way conducive to learning.

I hate online classes. If I wanted to do my degree virtually, I would have attended an online university. Online learning doesn’t motivate me in the same way that in-person learning does. There’s no connection with other students or professors and online discussions don’t have the same impact of an in-person back and forth. That being said, the thing I would hate more than online classes is a mid-semester switch. Having classes start in person and then forced back online would be a nightmare. This is why the entire semester must take place online. 

Even if some classes end up taking place on campus, students will either be fearful of returning or fearful that they’ll have their return pulled out from under them. Information from public health officials changes rapidly and Calgary’s rate of infection is higher than in other cities, including Edmonton. The chances that some classes would start in person and then move online if there is a second outbreak is simply too high to risk it — not only from a physical health standpoint but from a mental health perspective. Uncertainty is hard to deal with — in uncertain times, it’s important that students know what their fall semester looks like, even if it doesn’t look good.

Yes, a move online takes away from the student experience. Attending classes, cheering on the Dinos, seeing friends, studying in the library, grabbing lunch at the Den — these are all vital parts of the university experience. Online classes take away from this experience, but it does preserve our sanity for another few months. Even if we end up on campus for smaller classes, the chance that the student experience will be exactly the way it was pre-COVID-19 is unlikely. 

There are a lot of questions to be answered. How will practicum placements work? What happens to co-op students? How can students build relationships with instructors that lead to mentorship and research opportunities? What kind of orientation to the university will there be for first-years? How will the businesses in MacHall that rely on student dollars sustain themselves? 

The question will inevitably arise about tuition. Why are we paying when we don’t get access to services? That’s an entirely separate argument, but if university is about teaching resilience and adaptation to a changing world, students are definitely getting what they paid for. 

Unless information changes significantly in the next few weeks, I don’t think the university has much choice but to offer classes on an online-only basis. The best option in a sea of terrible options is to create stability. No one learns well in stress, upheaval and uncertainty.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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