I know I am not alone in saying this, but the last month has been a trying one. COVID-19 has challenged everyone in the University of Waterloo community, and around the world, to levels that have never been encountered before. What I have also seen is a community that has pushed forward every step of the way.
The final three weeks and exam period of this Winter Term have been transformed out of necessity for greater needs of public health and safety. The health and wellness of our students, faculty, staff and broader community will always remain our number one priority. At the same time, we have a dedication to keeping the quality of our academic experience strong and moving.
The mass migration to online academics in such a short time and at such a massive scale is akin to driving down the highway at 100km/h and trying to take a right turn without slowing down. I know it was not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but through a lot of hard work and dedication, resulted in a successful end to our academic term.
Lessons learned going remote
With the upcoming Spring Term being done wholly online, it is important to note that this too is unprecedented. Nearly 25 per cent of our students were already taking classes online from all faculties and many programs prior to the pandemic, but this is a full migration of what will be the largest body of students taking classes online in Canada.
This is why we’ve taken a deep look at the past month to assess some of the lessons we’ve learned and can utilize moving forward, from an undergraduate and graduate studies perspective, and also from a teaching and support perspective.
One of the biggest lessons we’ve taken away from the past month has been this: simpler is better. By this, I mean academic delivery. Because of the wide range of students across time zones and with different accessibility levels, we want to ensure all students have an equitable view of course material. For example, by cutting down on live-streamed classes and instead cutting them up into shorter, video lessons, every student can access the lessons as their individual situation allows while digesting the information in a helpful manner.
There is naturally a question of how to ensure a quality educational experience from this platform of videos. What we’ve found comes down to how instructors are able to find ways to engage with their class during these lessons through online group discussions or short assignments that accompany the lessons.
We are also in constant discussions and implementation of measures to ensure academic integrity is maintained. With more than two decades of experience delivering course material online, we’re doing everything we can to share best practices with every instructor new to online teaching and also discovering new insights from our post-secondary peers across Canada.
Some types of courses are naturally easier to do with remote delivery than others. Clinics, labs, community service learning courses, and others all present special challenges to do remote instruction. We are looking at realigning the order in which courses are taken in a program so that students can progress while delaying these courses to help mitigate those issues.
There are many ways to measure student learning. When in-person exams were cancelled, our professors rose to the challenge and found feasible alternatives. We hope that similar alternatives will be possible for the upcoming term. The experience we are able to receive through these alternatives could, perhaps, result in long term improvements in the way we do assessments.
It has also been very encouraging to see how our graduate students have been able to adjust to the new changes to comprehensive exams, research proposals and PhD defenses. Students have been able to engage their committees in scholarly discourse on their research topics while situated around the world. These evaluations have taken many forms and each time our faculty members and supervisors are part of these remote PhD defenses and proposal meetings, we are gaining further insight into short and long-term learnings for future improvements.
With teaching in mind, we’ve seen that flexibility has been embraced by instructors. Both in how they are evaluating their students, but also adjusting set plans to what is working best for student outcomes. We know this is a new experience for everyone and being willing to make changes when they are needed has become quite apparent for how we teach.
We’ve also learned the full extent of our faculty’s range for creativity. The ability to pivot and adjust syllabuses and modes of pedagogy has been very encouraging and not an easy task. Our faculty members are learning from one another across our institution and the interpersonal service and collaboration will be ongoing for my colleagues in the weeks and months to come.
There are also a number of lessons we’ve learned that go into supporting teaching and learning remotely. There are hundreds of dedicated staff members who have also changed how they operate to make online, distant instruction and learning possible at scale. The Writing and Communications Centre has vastly increased its number of online consultation appointments that will continue to be vital for students at both undergraduate and graduate levels. They did this in a matter of days and are refining planning for the next term needs.
Library services are essential for all students, and particularly researching for graduate students. With research milestones approaching for countless students, access to research materials will only increase and the Library has been working closely with the Faculties and the Graduate Studies and Post-Doctoral Affairs Office to improve this access.
The amount of cross-department collaborations over the last month has also been full of learning opportunities as IST, Media Services, the Centre for Extended Learning and Centre for Teaching Excellence are continuously working on providing the best possible advice for instructors as they develop course materials.
We will never stop learning and adjusting
As much as we plan and learn from past initiatives and feedback, we will be faced with new challenges and opportunities this coming term. I am in constant contact with our Deans and other members of the Executive Council to learn from across our institution what best practices are working for instructors, graduate supervisors and support staff, as well as what gaps may still exist as we move deeper into the academic term.
The University of Waterloo is responding to meet the needs at the scale not yet seen by a Canadian institution and we do not take it lightly. We may be in uncharted territory, but we have a wide breadth of experience in extended learning and online course delivery, and a community of passionate instructors and resilient students.
We may not be together on campus, but we are still a community and this Spring Term I know we will thrive.
Thank you for being there!