On Tuesday, September 8, the 2020/2021 academic school year kicked off and brought with it a lot of questions from incoming students. Mount Allison, like many other universities, chose to move some courses and tutorials online in an effort to protect students and staff amid the COVID 19 pandemic.
In general, most in-person courses are designed to allow for classroom interactions in an effort to help students learn. This meant a substantial amount of work for professors over the summer as they tried to find ways to allow their classes to function at a distance. “Completely reimagining my courses has been one of the great challenges and joys of my career,” said Dr. Susie Andrews, an associate professor of Eastern Religions at Mount Allison. “Knowing that this is going to be an academic year unlike any that we’ve had before, I have tried to build enormous flexibility into the course and to make the expectations very clear,” said Andrews. “There’s a lot of flexibility that allows students in our class to find ways to show what they know that are doable.”
The flexibility of online courses has been an aspect many students are drawn to. Entirely online universities, such as Athabasca University, exist under the premise that you will be able to receive your education at a time that suits you. Instead of attending in-person classes at scheduled times throughout the week, this year some students are logging on to Moodle to watch pre-recorded lectures at a time of their choosing.
However, some students have found keeping up with the new unscheduled curriculum difficult. “Staying on schedule and staying motivated while doing almost all of my courses at home is challenging,” said Brianna Crosby, a third-year biology student. “I’ve struggled with keeping up with lectures while they are unscheduled online.”
In an effort to combat this, some professors have chosen to hold scheduled lectures on Teams, where students can pop-in to ask questions and attendance is noted. There are still some kinks being worked out, and some students are experiencing difficulty with the limitations of Teams. “Professors are taking less questions or none at all, meaning class discussion has been almost eliminated,” said Dean Sherwood, a third-year PPE major. “When discussion does occur, Teams mutes people, only allowing one voice to be heard.”
While technology might limit professors in online lectures, some are already finding ways to allow students crucial time for discussion. In Dr. Andrew’s class, “Death and the Afterlife in Asian Religions,” students can opt-in to weekly tutorials that encourage them to connect with the professor and the material as well as ask questions that may have come up throughout the week.
Due to the increased restrictions on air travel, border closures, residence capacities and various other reasons, a large number of students have not returned to Sackville. For students on the other side of the world, a scheduled 9am lecture could force them to wake up and attend class at 2am. Realizing this, many professors have created asynchronous courses, as it is sometimes the only way to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to learn.
In a select few courses, professors are giving students the option between an in-person or an online course. English 1201 offers weekly scheduled lectures combined with a synchronous syllabus or an asynchronous syllabus for the ‘at a distance’ version. This gives students the opportunity to choose the learning style they are most comfortable with while still being given the chance to participate in the course.
For students working in courses where in person labs or discussions are crucial to the understanding of the material, safety measures have been put in place. Entrances are now clearly marked “in” or “out,” staircases are one way, desks and lab benches have been spaced out, and masks are mandatory while on campus. While the weather permits, classes are also being held outside to better allow for students to work at a safe distance from one another.
This academic year will be a bit of an experiment in online learning, and it remains to be seen if and when students can expect to return to the traditional classroom setting.