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The Virtual Void: How COVID-19 has affected the delivery and reception of educational instruction at Trent

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November 5, 2020
The Virtual Void: How COVID-19 has affected the delivery and reception of educational instruction at Trent

There is a long list of characteristics that make a good educational institution, and adaptability and support have just moved to the top of the list. In recent months, educators and  educational institutions have been scrambling to ensure students have a means of receiving a fulsome education while maintaining safety and following public health protocols. This article will feature a variety of sources discussing how online learning has affected both staff and  students in the Trent community so far this year.  

Trent’s decision to hold all classes remotely for the Fall 2020 semester was undoubtedly met with both relief and anxiety. For many staff and students, this meant an entirely new method  of delivering and receiving instruction that they were perhaps unprepared for. So, what adjustments and commitments has Trent made to training instructors in online teaching, what supports and resources have they provided for students, and how successful have these adjustments been to all students across Trent? Unfortunately, the full picture cannot be established. Trent’s President of the Canadian Unit of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Students with Disabilities Commissioner for the TCSA were contacted for an interview, but did not respond in time for the article's publication. (The TSCA Students with Disabilities Commissioner, Max Setka, has since responded, and his comments can be found at the end of this article.)

The only departments available to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected operations and students were Accessibility Services and the IT department. In written correspondence with the Director of Trent’s Student Wellness Centre, Stewart Engelberg, on October 22, he described how the transition to remote learning has proven beneficial for students requiring accessibility services. Citing remote access to advisors and a streamlined registration process, Engelberg argues that “Trent’s commitment to a multi-access approach to learning this year has  proven quite advantageous to students who use our services.”

Engelberg highlights Trent faculties’ efforts to re-design their courses and employ innovative technologies in an important shift towards Universal Design for Learning (UDL), described by Engelberg as a “design principle that removes barriers for students with disabilities." He elaborated saying that "we look at disability through a social lens which asserts that people are hindered by barriers in society, not by their impairment or differences. UDL removes these barriers and opens access to education.” Examples of operating within this principle include captioning, recording, and providing transcripts for lectures, which Engelberg says benefits all students, not only those with a learning disability or accessibility requirement.  

While this is an important technological advancement for students with accessibility  requirements, student support and mental health resources are additional fundamental services  that have increased in demand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked how Accessibility Services is supporting students’ mental health, Engelberg responded:

Accessibility Services provides supports for students with mental health issues whose   functional abilities may be further challenged by a global pandemic, through the development of accommodations plans to ensure equal access and by providing both  individual and group learning strategy sessions (specific to online learning). If the situation warrants it, the SAS [Student Accessibility Services] advisor will refer the student to one of the many other student supports around campus, including Counselling Services, Health Services, Peer Support, Rebound, FPHL [First Peoples House of Learning], Trent International, and I.M. Well. Students are also directed to the various online mental health programs that are available, including Trent's subscription Therapy Assisted Online (TAO) and provincially available supports, such as Beacon. The University has also recently approved the creation of two new counselling positions (one permanent and one contract). This new investment demonstrates Trent’s commitment to increasing support for mental health, which includes students with mental illnesses who have accessibility needs as well.

This sense of pride in Trent’s response to adapting to online learning in the COVID-19 pandemic  was also evident in corresponding with Tariq Al-idrissi, the Associate Vice President in charge of  IT at Trent. When asked how shifting all classes to remote delivery has impacted the IT  department, Al-idrissi led his response with pride; “I’m tremendously proud of everyone in the  Trent community for their work in shifting to remote delivery. From the staff in IT who keep things running, to the professors and support staff who are making classes work online, it’s no  small feat to move everything to online overnight.”

While Al-idrissi acknowledges that this shift  has “increased the intensity of our online footprint,” he is satisfied with Trent’s projects to  increase accessibility to students, such as setting Blackboard to a cloud environment and  adopting Zoom and Yuja video platforms. The preparations for an online learning environment  also included training sessions for faculty. As Al-idrissi explained, “...we’ve spent a considerable  amount of time investing in training over the summer and into the fall. Our staff have facilitated  and co-facilitated (with our partners in the Center for Teaching and Learning and Trent Online)  over 100 hours of training sessions for faculty staff and students.”

While Al-idrissi acknowledges  that technical challenges are inevitable, he encourages all internet users to educate and inform themselves in order to minimize cybersecurity attacks and to have a safer, more efficacious, online experience. In doing so and working together as a community, Al-idrissi is confident that Trent will be able to provide a high quality of service to their users.  

Image from Shutterstock.

These two departments are confident in the preparations put in place for an online learning environment and feel that they have done their absolute best to maintain students’ calibre of learning. However, the efficacy of this preparedness was called into question when two of Trent’s undergraduate students, Kenneth Mitton and Jaylynn Schillemore, were questioned about their online learning experience so far this year.  

“Overwhelming” and “disappointing” were the two words Schillemore and Mitton, respectively, responded with when asked to describe their online learning experience thus far.

Elaborating on his experience, Mitton, a third year Geography major, explained, “I think that  Trent advertises themselves as an institution that is dedicated to progressive learning. An  example of that is their dedication to experiential learning. While I understand that that isn’t  possible during COVID, Trent, I don’t think, has taken time to assess whether or not the  practices of individual professors and the institution as a whole, is accommodating the needs,  wide and narrow, of all students.” Referencing a lack of communication on the part of Trent’s  administration, Mitton expressed concerns over students not only not feeling heard, but not being  asked for feedback whatsoever. In Mitton’s opinion, “three or four weeks into the semester, Trent  should’ve done a major assessment to see how they are doing and if it is benefitting students. I  think that there should be a lot of communication between students...and administration, which  in my experience, there has not been.” The lack of involvement and consideration Mitton has experienced from Trent’s administration is also prevalent in the classroom. When asked if he felt  like his instructors were prepared to teach a course exclusively online, Mitton explained:  

I think they were prepared, but I don’t think that they made any adjustments to the courses. I think they themselves were prepared to administer the course but didn’t make any amendments to the course to prepare students for it. From what I’ve seen from other   students and myself, a lot of professors were very lazy in changing the course material to   accommodate an online learning environment. And I think that there are a lot of   professors that are very well-versed and proficient in the content that they teach, but they   completely neglect the educational aspect of the learning experience. To be an educator requires a lot of responsibility, and just because you may know a lot and have experience in your field does not mean you’re doing a good job of teaching it.

He elaborated, stating, “I haven’t seen a single professor beg the question ‘is this course  working?’ or, alternatively, ‘is the academic demand of this course detrimental to the students’  mental health?’ openly to the students expecting a response.” When asked what his answer to  that question would be, if a professor were to ask, Mitton responded with “yes, it is a detriment  to my mental health.”  

Mitton’s feelings are echoed by Schillemore. A fourth year Psychology major, Schillemore emphasized feelings of neglect from Trent’s administration. When asked how Trent could better support her as a student, Schillemore suggested that the University should “regulate the amount of work being given to students.”

“I think they should be a little more open with mental health services during these times and make it more available...because I think that’s a big factor in handling school online. It’s an extra responsibility that I don’t think a lot of students were prepared for.” In these students’ opinions, unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures,  which raises questions about the practicality and justness of Trent’s handling of tuition during the  pandemic. Many students have expressed that the lack of student presence on campus warrants a reduction in tuition. It therefore came as a surprise when Trent announced that there would be no widespread tuition adjustments or reductions for either the Fall or Winter terms in 2020-2021,  citing:

Funds provide important support for course instruction, student services such  as counselling services, financial aid and academic support, the classroom and online  technology required to deliver courses, materials for labs, physical and online library  resources, and so on… the University has also made significant incremental investments in new technological tools and training for instructors to deliver the best online and remote  courses, to ensure virtual services meet our high standards, and to increase supports for  students in a variety of ways.

Both Mitton and Schillemore expressed that the adjustments to the allocation of student tuition have so far proven to be insufficient for the level of support students require during these  challenging times. The two students are in agreement with Mitton’s opinion that “Trent needs to focus on students and what students need.” Mitton elaborated, stating “I feel in online learning, I don’t see the service that my money is buying.” Despite these experiences, Trent’s administration maintains that student tuition fees “are an essential part of what enables the University to maintain [their] commitment to a  high calibre learning and student life experiences for [their] students.”  

Noting that their online learning experiences have been unsatisfactory thus far, Mitton  and Schillemore were both asked how they felt about Trent possibly holding some classes in person in the Winter semester (pending public health recommendations). Mitton notes that a  return to campus would not necessarily mean a return to normal classes; “I think that returning to campus doesn’t mean that there aren’t still limitations on what you can do. As a student in a  science program, unless they’re planning on re-opening labs, in which case students would most likely be in close proximity, then I can’t see a benefit for myself. I don’t have the experience to comment on others’ programs.”

Schillemore does not see a benefit either. Highlighting that we are still facing many unknowns as we head into a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, one that  is anticipated to reach record-breaking case numbers due to the environmental conditions and  social gatherings throughout the fall and winter, Schillemore feels a return to in-person classes  would “add a different sort of stress to having to attend school.” Instead, she suggests that Trent improve the current online learning situation; “I think that the focus should be more on  improving online classes as opposed to having a diminished in-person experience, because that wouldn’t benefit anybody… I think it’s the safest option.”  

The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously affected many aspects of delivering and  receiving education. While everyone is trying their best to navigate this new reality, it is evident that some discrepancies exist between Trent’s perception of their efficacy at adapting to  online learning and students’ lived experiences (or at least Mitton’s and Schillemore’s). The level of commitment Engelberg and Al-idrissi emphasize is falsely reassuring for these undergraduates, who feel that while the level of commitment may be advertised, a conversation on determining the efficacy of online delivery and how it can be improved to better support students, is something that is fundamentally missing in Trent’s operations.

Update: Trent’s Students with Disabilities Commissioner, Maximillian Setka, responded with explanations as to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Trent students with disabilities. When asked how the decision to transfer all classes online had affected students with disabilities, Setka explained that the implications depend on each student and their circumstances. He offered insight into his own personal experience, citing the importance of notetakers in aiding students with learning disabilities who struggle without notes. He also highlighted the importance in recording and captioning Zoom (or other video recording software) lectures for students with hearing loss or retention issues. Without these accommodations, students’ confidence and involvement in the class risks being diminished.

When asked his opinion on whether a possible return to campus in the Winter semester would better serve students with disabilities, Setka expressed that he feels the remote learning environment can perhaps better serve students with disabilities in the winter months who may have difficulty traveling to and on campus. Referencing his own experiences as someone with a physical disability who had a history of skipping classes due to weather conditions, Setka considers the online learning situation to be a benefit, stating: “it will be a major benefit to students with disabilities to be able to safely and comfortably attend all of their classes, as well it is a benefit in the current pandemic climate that those who may feel uncomfortable in person can still have the option of attending their classes.”

In Setka’s opinion, there are plenty of available supports for students, regardless if they identify with a disability or not. Referencing Student Accessibility Services, Trent’s administration, and the faculty, Setka feels the entire institution has been “stepping up to make sure that all students feel supported in this strange and unusual year.”

If you are interested in reaching out to Maximillian Setka, he can be reached at maximilliansetka@trentu.ca.

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