Post-secondary institutions in Saskatchewan are positioning themselves for change that will last long after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in the province.
University of Regina interim provost david Gregory can’t envision what life on campus will look like in the future, but he knows the typical crowds packing into lecture halls won’t be the same.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a pre-COVID reality, but we need to consider a blended approach to teaching and learning,” he said.
“I don’t think you’ll see us return to 16,000 or 19,000 students on campus on a Monday with 2,000 faculty members — I think you’ll see a version of that.”
Thanks to the global pandemic, remote learning has become the only way to attend class, interact with professors and write exams for many students.
Back in March, the U of R accelerated years of work to switch hundreds of classes over to online learning in a matter of days.
In the Fall 2020 semester, roughly 95 per cent of students were attending class online while the remaining five attended in-person.
Gregory said it’s almost a complete reversal of what was happening prior to the pandemic.
At the University of Saskatchewan, roughly 14 per cent of students are attending class in-person while the remaining 86 per cent are logging in online.
U of S provost of teaching, learning and student experience Patti McDougall said there’s no avoiding the online classes even if you are a nurse undergoing clinical instruction, for example.
“Any student who is doing in-person delivery is also doing remote delivery. Nobody is doing full in-person (classes),” she said.
“When the time comes, in-person will always be the core or the heart of our activities.”
The highlights and drawbacks of entirely online classes are vast.
Based on student feedback to the U of R and U of S, students enjoy being able to attend class anywhere with an internet connection and don’t have to relocate, schedules are more flexible with no travel time between classes and accomodating part-time or full-time work has become far easier.
The push to online-only education is also altering the traditional university experience. Many students find it difficult to engage in a thoughtful debate, while also suffering mentally with a lack of social connections due to almost no face-to-face communication with students and professors.
The strain and exhaustion of staring at a computer screen day and night are another set of drawbacks for students.
“There are struggles,” McDougall said, pointing to the isolation students are experiencing.
“Imagine the student who now basically lives an entire life inside of one room.”
Finding a way to strike a balance of allowing people to come together while allowing the freedom to attend class online in the future is the solution universities are beginning to explore.
“We will have a growing number of options available,” McDougall said. “I think our students and their choices are going to dictate whether, in fact, the campus looks different going forward.”
Enrolment has seen a boost in the pandemic. Gregory noted more than 16,000 students are enrolled at the U of R this semester, a record amount for the winter term.
Preliminary data wasn’t available for the U of S, but McDougall noted there were almost 23,000 students enrolled in the Fall 2020 semester, an increase of over two per cent.
No matter how COVID-19 affects teaching at universities, both Gregory and McDougall agree that the desire to be on campus will always exist.
“We will see students and professors on campus. Absolutely. It’s just when it’s safe to do so,” Gregory said.
“I know what our students are telling us when they say this is a period of upheaval,” McDougall said. “I’m also regularly astounded at the resistance and creativity and adaptability our students are showing.”