The Transition to Online Education at Canadian Universities
Ontario Tech University
The execution of education at universities experienced a great shift over the month of March 2020. The last face-to-face lessons at Ontario Tech University took place on March 12, which was near the end of the winter semester. The first online lessons began just four days later, on Monday, March 16. For many faculty members, the rapid and immediate transition to online education was a terrifying task.
Being a sessional instructor at the Faculty of Education, my own students, called teacher candidates, were finalizing assignments and preparing to go out on a practicum at this time. It was to our absolute disbelief that in the hour following our class on March 12th, the Ontario Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, would announce that publicly funded schools would not be reopening after the March Break. In addition, as a PhD Candidate in the Materials Science program, the time spent at the Faculty of Science that evening was just as alarming. The undergraduate students who work in the research laboratories claimed that their classes were empty; students were staying home because they were scared of virus transmission. This fear was very reasonable, as students who commute to campus dominate our university population. Thus, the risk of COVID-19 virus transmission arose from people coming to campus from the entire Greater Toronto Area and beyond. The following morning, like Ontario’s schoolboards, Ontario Tech University announced that it was cancelling face-to-face classes for the day. As restrictions in the province were ramping up daily, it was not surprising to learn the following workweek that students would not be returning to campus to finish the semester. We were not alone in our closure; universities and businesses began to close as the push to work from home accelerated. Faculty and students were not ready to make an immediate adjustment. However, education could move forward, despite the cancellation of in-person classes.
There is a lot of screen-recording software available, and the financial cost is frequently paid for by the university. However, the concept of learning new software, in addition to all of the other changes happening, was creating obvious anxieties across the campus. Thus, educators such as myself came forward with resources to inform instructors and their students about how they could give presentations electronically using learning tools that they were already comfortable using. For example, newer editions of Microsoft PowerPoint have screen-recording capabilities, and it enables the addition of subtitles to promote equitable accessibility of content. Allowing people to tackle tasks without learning new programs reduced the fear behind transitioning to online education. In addition, many instructors had arranged for their students to deliver in class presentations at the end of the term. Now, they were able to inform their classes that these assignments would unfold online, with the same learning opportunities, in the comfort and safety of their homes.
My own course made a slightly different transition. In the upcoming week, my teacher candidates were going to execute the teaching of a mini lesson on a senior chemistry topic. Almost all of the learning opportunities were possible, in some manner, online. They were to record themselves giving lessons where they would implement best teaching practices, including questioning skills and good diction. They were encouraged to include electronic activities, such as the incorporation of a video or interactive simulation, to promote retention of content. Then, they had to create a discussion forum where their students could ask questions or provide feedback. The teacher candidates excelled at the task. They created online quizzes for follow up assessments, electronic exit tickets to review which of their students participated, and created interactive activities within the discussion forums. The quality of work was outstanding.
The best piece of advice for any instructor making a rapid switch to online education is be flexible with all deadlines, and keep your students informed; silence promotes fear. Thus, all students remained up-to-date regarding expectations through daily e-mails with new information as it arose from the Faculties to minimize any anxiety that they were experiencing. Students understood that difficulties at home, such as having children, sick family members, weak internet connections and so on, would not affect their assignment scores, and they were not alone in these challenges. Each student knew that it was normal to feel fear during this time, and that there would be no penalties for misinterpretations. Moreover, as a scientist, it is a genuine concern that not all learning opportunities are possible through e-learning, such as advanced laboratory techniques. Therefore, in moving forward, all universities should develop contingency plans and resources for online education, in case we ever make this rapid transition again. All educators should be given online education training prior to a pandemic, and not during it.