Profs talk remote and campus learning
U of R to move remote courses planned for campus back to in person delivery by March 1
The University of Regina (U of R) had plans to return nearly all course delivery back to the campus in the Winter 2022 semester, but those were halted weeks before due to Omicron. U of R President Jeff Keshen announced to the student body over email on December 21 that the first two weeks of the semester would be delivered remotely, both to minimize potential transmissions of the variant and to allow time to plan for a safe return to campus.
Professors at the university had time over the holidays to ready a distanced version of their courses for a January 10 debut. Dr. Christopher Somers, a professor at the U of R in the Department of Biology, said that the experience gained over the last two years made preparations this time quite smooth for his Intro Genetics course. “I teach it every winter basically, so it was the first course I had that got shut down halfway through when the pandemic hit in 2020. I taught it entirely online in 2021, so the reversion back to online format wasn’t too terrible for me because I had done some prep on it previously.”
Dr. Ryan Doran, an assistant professor at the U of R in the Department of Philosophy, also noted that preparations have gotten simpler with practice, but didn’t discount the challenges being faced by professors right now in terms of the limitations in remote delivery options like Zoom lectures. “Obviously one of the challenges of Zoom is the bigger the meeting, the more difficult it is for everyone to be involved, and much more easy for students to sort of fade back into the corner…sometimes I don’t even know if anyone’s still there in the meeting. I could just be talking to a bunch of names on a screen and everyone’s just gone to make a sandwich.”
While Somers acknowledged that Zoom isn’t the ideal lecture format, he mentioned enjoying Zoom’s breakout room feature which allows him to separate his 130 students into dozens of four- or five-person video chats, allowing deeper discussion of and engagement with the material being covered. “I think a good portion, I’d say a good 80 per cent of the class really bought into it and enjoyed it,” Somers said, quickly following with: “but if I watch the participant number on my toolbar as I would go, often I would say ‘Okay we’re going to have breakout groups,’ and the class would drop by 20 students.”
When asked on current challenges, Somers said his primary concern in courses is student engagement. “It’s not so much the material prep, it’s me finding ways to make those connections with students, to bring some life to the material and to the people […] How do I have a conversation with you that’s meaningful on a screen like this?” Intro Genetics, along with many other courses, has a lab component, which Somers noted has also been impacted by the restriction to online methods. “I think the students would probably be better able to comment on whether they enjoy it or not, and I think from a pedagogical standpoint we kind of have to worry less about how enjoyable it is and more about how effective it is at transferring the information. My impression is that they’re still learning a fair bit from that, so I take that as a big positive.”
Somers went on to say: “Obviously we’re lacking in hands-on, so if you want to be a molecular geneticist as a career, you’re going to have to know how to use pipettes and run gels, use PCR machines and that sort of thing, so we’re not getting that part to it. At least not the hands-on part, but we can teach that, you know. What are these machines for? What do you do? What kind of data do you get? I think there’s still a ton of merit in learning that […] It’s been difficult, no doubt about it, but I think the alternative that we’re providing is at least giving that conceptual framework.”
The inhibited interactions, engagement, and methods in which to learn impact professors in many of the same ways as students, but the delayed return to campus is worth some sacrifice, especially when considering just how many social circles interact on campus. “You might have a class with me at 10 a.m. with a hundred other students, then 2 p.m. you’re somewhere else with a hundred other students, and things can spread very very quickly through such a large population.” Doran pointed out. “Then of course everyone goes home to their families, their roommate situation, and there’s a real possibility for things to move quite quickly through the university.”
As much as everyone who’s been even moderately conscious the past two years is very over COVID-19 and all it brings with it, there could be devastating effects to making the leap back to in person delivery too soon. “I think there’d be real possibility for significant disruptions were we to come back to class too soon.” Doran noted. “And at what point is too soon, too late – that’s not something that I can answer. But as much as we might all want to be back to campus, there are other things that might make coming back too soon a lot more hassle and a lot less of the sort of idyllic return to campus that we might be envisioning.”
On January 17, Keshen emailed students and faculty with an updated version of the back-to-campus plan. For the time being, we know that “some classes and laboratories” that are deemed to function best in person will resume on campus “as early as February 7,” with all courses planned for campus returning to that format by March 1.
Many questions remain for both students and professors, as well as those coordinating the plans to be sure. What specific criteria will be used to determine when a class or lab should return? Is the university planning on tracing contacts, or will campus entrances be left open to all who’d like to come in for a stroll? Is there a plan to alter grading structures in courses that mark for attendance and participation to accommodate occasions where students will need to self-isolate, or will they be pressured to attend until they show positive test results? Tune in to future issues of the Carillon to follow the progress of the university’s planned transition back to campus.