This article was put together by TUFA’s Executive Committee with assistance from staff at the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
At Trent, as at universities around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily rhythms of postsecondary education. Last spring’s sudden shift to emergency remote teaching had faculty and students scrambling to adapt to new teaching and learning formats while, at the same time, coping with increased stress and anxiety in their personal lives.
Just before the end of last semester, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) released the results of a survey involving more than 2,200 faculty members and academic librarians across Ontario. More than 500 students were also surveyed. Not surprisingly, both students and faculty have experienced significantly higher stress levels as a result of the pandemic and are struggling with social isolation
More precisely, the poll found that the two groups were missing each other. Students identified “isolation/lack of communication with professors” as the pandemic’s most significant effect—above health worries, the absence of university social life, educational costs, or the challenges of working online. For faculty, the absence of students was no less profound. Faculty ranked the loss of interaction/engagement with students and the university community as two of the top three ways in which the pandemic had negatively affected them. This loss ranked higher than the frustration of working almost entirely online, increased class sizes, and other logistical challenges.
Although the move online was absolutely necessary to protect everyone’s health and safety, it seems clear the education experience has suffered as a result of this shift. According to the poll, 62% of students and 76% of faculty and academic librarians believe that the adjustments universities made to move practically all teaching online have had a negative impact on education quality.
The shift online has not only changed the method of education delivery, but the ways in which students interact with professors and colleagues outside of class. It is more difficult to ask questions, participate in important discussions, and it has stripped away the sense of community that underpins the university experience.
Engagement between students and faculty is vital to the learning process. When asked about the elements of educational quality, 63% of faculty were concerned or extremely concerned with their own ability to teach and support students effectively.
Many of us have come to realize that—because of the inefficiencies that remote delivery imposes—we must make further adjustments to balance content delivery with reasonable expectations on student time and effort. For those Trent students who felt like their course workload had increased as a result of more frequent small assignments, you were probably right: many of us had been advised to adopt such an approach to make up for the loss of in-class participation marks.
As the pandemic wears on, and as we continue to fine tune our delivery, we expect that most Trent students will see course evolution in action. Teaching online has advantages and disadvantages and adapting courses for virtual delivery takes time and expertise. Some faculty members were already teaching online before the pandemic struck and, in some cases, had spent years developing their courses for digital presentation.
For many others, however, the shift to remote delivery came as a sudden requirement for which they had neither planned nor prepared and so teaching in 2020-21 became a real-time experiment. By shifting all courses online, the pandemic created a new educational context with which no one was familiar. The past six months have involved a significant amount of trial-and-error development with the consistent goal of maintaining a high-quality education for all Trent students.
That is not to suggest that once we “get it right” online education should be the new normal. For some students, some faculty, and some courses, the new opportunities for remote delivery have been welcome and productive. Post-pandemic we should try to retain those things that have worked well. OCUFA’s poll reminds us, however, that higher education must always and quintessentially be about creating a space to bring students and professors together.
Moreover, a crisis like this pandemic gives us all an opportunity to think about how we should rebuild once we get the chance. What would a post-COVID university look like if redesigned by the students and faculty? OCUFA’s poll provides some glimpses at the road ahead and suggests several steps that institutions like Trent University might consider:
Finally, our whole society needs to rethink student finances and university access. It should come as no surprise that, for students responding to OCUFA’s survey, reducing or mitigating the costs of their education was their top recommendation. Ontario is Canada’s worst jurisdiction for per-capita spending on higher education.
What faculty and students have achieved with less is remarkable, but the burden on students has been neither reasonable nor sustainable—even before the pandemic hit. Provincial funding is not something any one university can change; rather, we must all advocate to ensure that Ontario’s students can continue to access one of the world’s great university systems, but without having to mortgage their futures to do it.
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