Jordan: So a few weeks ago, in a time that feels like it belongs to another age, there was a huge fight in Ontario about something called e-learning. Claire, do you remember the e-learning debate.
Claire: Yeah, we talked about it on the show. We talked about the discussion around whether or not that was a good idea, to have kids take their courses online, or if they should actually be in class to learn.
Jordan: And that seems incredibly quaint right now because of course, e-learning or distant learning is the only way any learning is happening in Canada right now. After the initial shock of being told to pack up your stuff and go home and stay there. And then for some students and professors, there was a March break. School is back in session, at least virtually.
Claire: I’m just really curious about how all of that works. I mean, I’ve had the option to take online courses before, but I’ve always opted for in class because I honestly don’t think I would do well in an online course. I mean, how do you submit assignments and how are they graded and what do you do if you have a question for the teacher?
Jordan: Yeah, and we’ll kind of dig into all of that, but also at universities and colleges in particular where, look, in class lecture attending is probably 30% to 50% tops of the actual education experience, what is virtual campus life like? I mean, events are gone, sports are gone. The University of Toronto canceled their convocation just before we recorded this episode. What is it like to be a student right now? So we’re going to go back to school today on The Big Story. But first of course. The news, Claire, where are we as of 6:00 PM Wednesday, March 25th?
Claire: Well we heard from the chief of the world health organization on Wednesday who said, we have an opportunity right now that we cannot waste.
News Clip: The time to act was actually more than a month ago or two months ago. That’s what we have been saying. But we still believe that there is opportunity. I think we squandered the first window of opportunity, but we are saying today, and my message, I made it clear that this is a second opportunity, which we should not squander. And do everything to suppress and control this virus. And this is a responsibility for all of us, especially the political leadership is key.
Claire: Here at home, mandatory quarantine starts today for travellers coming back to Canada and the government says it is willing to pay for some hotels and meals if that’s needed. So this means that those coming back to Canada need to self isolate for 14 days with some exceptions for essential workers. And anyone who disobeys this could be fined up to $750,000 and possibly face jail time. An emergency federal bill to give the government billions of dollars to spend to help anxious workers, families, and employers cope with COVID-19, was signed on Wednesday afternoon. The benefits for workers should come as early as the first week of April and top-ups for child benefits and GST checks, those will start in may. And a Canadian company who’s had to close up because it’s not considered an essential service, is trying to make itself essential during all of this. The hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer is offering to modify its production line to make protective visors for doctors, nurses, and first responders. Now the company just needs authorization from the Quebec government before going into production. As of Wednesday evening, more than 3,400 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, most of those in Quebec, and there have been 36 deaths across the country.
Jordan: Today, we’ll look at both sides of how postsecondary education is functioning right now. A professor and a student. The professor teaches a subject that often relies on students having access to powerful computer programs in labs on campus. And the student also works on the campus newspaper, which is about as deep into campus life as you can get. Neither of their lives are close to normal right now. But we wanted to know how they’re adapting and how the education system is adapting with them. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Ken Dyment teaches graphic design at two different Ontario colleges and he joins us now because e-learning is now in full effect. Hi Ken.
Ken: Hi Jordan. Thank you for having me.
Jordan: No problem. I guess first, tell us what you did and how you prepared when it kind of became clear that very soon you were going to be teaching from home?
Ken: Well admittedly, the overwhelm was real at first. The immediate preparations were based on many a plethora of emails coming in from administration, even the presidents of our schools. It was just a flurry of activity that made it actually quite difficult to immediately wrap your head around. But at the same time, the support was just fantastic. So when it came to actually doing our preparations, once the necessary parties got organized within each program, there were, between Friday and through into the middle of what we called essentially our pause week to prepare, there were several conference calls, and just collaborative emails, we’ll say. So preparing was essentially getting ourselves organized within a very short time to take classroom curriculum into an online format.
Jordan: Explain to me what that’s like. Like, are you teaching right now? What’s a class like? What do you do?
Ken: Well, I am teaching. However, the type of work that I teach being graphic design, it’s very application based, it’s, much of it does require myself and the student looking at their screen, looking at their work. Meanwhile, answering questions about software concerns, and how do I do this? And what do I click on? And so on. So, my type of class is quite different in that regard, in the sense that I’m not doing synchronous class meetings. And what that means is that I’m not scheduling classes where all of my students are expected to be online at the same time, looking at a video of me speaking to them, simply due to the nature of my classes. Now, many classes are having synchronous classes. Mine would be called asynchronous, and that is where they are expected on time to be in a video chat with their instructor. So it’s manageable. However, there’s quite a disconnect. Because I’m not speaking directly to the student. So what I’ve done to create my classes, is essentially create discussion boards. So I’ve opened a discussion board for each class where the students can create threads, interact with one another, interact with me directly. So that is one thing. And then I check those several times a day. And then I’m just posting, almost continuously posting to the students, to each class to kind of develop and maintain a momentum of connection. I’m finding it’s more now about connection than curriculum.
Jordan: Well, that leads into what I wanted to ask you is, what kinds of things are you hearing from your students? Are they really focused on their classwork right now? And how is that going? I mean, are you totally focused on teaching graphic design? I mean, it must be hard.
Ken: It is very challenging. Much of it is reminiscent to 9/11 for me. The day when that happened, I was sitting at my desk and I had a major deadline for graphic design. In the midst of everything going on that feels so trivial. So to, you know, to sit there and discipline yourself, let’s just get this done and out the door, looking back on that, most of my students were– absolutely didn’t experience that. And this is that situation for them now. So for me, I kind of remind myself, I’ve been through this before. I know that I have to eliminate the distractions, turn the news off. And I do get into a frame of mind where it’s just like a normal day working at home. For my students. I’ve received several emails, just them saying it’s very difficult to work in this. And I do even have two students, two exchange students that, they are from Milan, and they returned back there, over the past few days they arrived. So the distractions are there, but I have to commend the students that I’ve been in touch with. They are committed to completing their work. And one of the fantastic things about both schools I teach at, is that they have been truly sensitive to what the students may be going through. To the variables of their situation, the emotions, the mental health of it all. And that’s helped taking some of the pressure off. Knowing that this isn’t necessarily about graphic design. You know, we’re going through an experience that is– it’s history. It’s planetary history that we’re going through. When this is over, you’re probably not going to be concerned about a few design skills and functions that you may have missed. So I think just relieving the pressure all around on all of us has been a very important thing.
Jordan: So speaking to that then, how do you grade assignments properly and sort of sit down and objectively look at who’s passing, who’s struggling, what kind of marks you’re going to give out? Are all these students going to pass the class and graduate? Like with all this going on, how do you handle the simple logistics of grading and pushing people through the system?
Ken: Well, working with the course outlines, we’re allowing an 80% achievement of the learning outcomes. So we’re not requiring 100% of all learning outcomes in our courses to be achieved, which really helps from a grading standpoint. The other thing that helped was the fact that this happened five or six weeks into the term. So you’ve received several projects, you’ve gotten to know the students quite well. By then you can tell which are going to pass in the end, which are going to do well. In my courses in particular, it really is subjective grading because it’s skills-based, it’s, aesthetic, it’s not black and white like math. So I am able to have some flexibility in grading. And I have to say that a lot of what I’ll be considering in grading is simple dedication. Getting things submitted in a time like this, on time is, to me, that’s quite an achievement.
Jordan: In terms of the climate under which they’re doing this, what do you do for students, or do you have any plans for students, even if you might not have some in your classes right now, who simply don’t always have reliable digital connections. You know, everybody’s situation is different depending on where they’re sheltering right now.
Ken: That’s right. I have heard from a couple of students who are having difficulties with their computers. For example, if they were only required to be in a computer lab at the school, they weren’t, as part of the program, required to have a computer that can handle the software and so on. Or simple, like you said, internet connections that aren’t working at their peak, or at all in some cases. So being a case by case basis, I take that into consideration. I am very much depending on past performance and work that was submitted. If a student– I haven’t had too many, only a couple, but if a student says in the end, I just could not get this in. I couldn’t get hooked up to a computer. I couldn’t run the software. That’s where I have to make a decision and I just have to base it on what I’ve seen in of past performance, past projects. And I don’t expect that it would be too difficult to say, I understand. This is a difficult thing to work around. But like I said, it hasn’t been too much of a concern at this point.
Jordan: Finally, tell me a little bit about how you’re making plans or how your schools are making plans day to day for a future that’s so uncertain. I mean, we heard his week, obviously, that schools will remain closed longer than April 6th. Do you guys know or have been given any indication, if we’re just, we’re going to finish the term online, or we’ll know by this date, or we’re hoping to make plans three weeks from now, or like, how do you plan in this environment?
Ken: Well, initially we did– the planning was that we would finish out the term online with distance learning. One of the schools I teach at does have a summer term that we’ve pushed back by a week or two for a start date near the end of May. I suspect it will likely carry on, but online. I really don’t imagine we’ll be in the classrooms at that point. I really do believe that this is going to make a change in the education system going forward.
Jordan: For better or for worse?
Ken: Well, I think it will be better because we’re going to have to be prepared for this from now on. It’s happened. We’re very fortunate that we have the technology so that we could, within one week, get a colleges and universities working online, and when, for the most part, they were in the classroom. However, it was organized chaos. We were, we were all supporting and helping one, one another through it. And so far it’s been a successful endeavor. However, nothing prepared us for it prior to its actual happening. So I do think it will be better. I think it’s going to be a learning curve for all of us, of course. But it’s all going to be like anything else that’s going to not want to be unprepared the next time something like this happens.
Jordan: Ken, thanks so much for giving us a little window into the education system and stay safe and be well.
Ken: Thank you. You too.
Jordan: That was Ken Dyment, a graphic design professor, and now our students, Stephanie Bai is a second year student at the University of Toronto. She is also the features editor at The Varsity, the student newspaper at UofT. Hey, Stephanie.
Jordan: So, are you still in school right now? I guess maybe that’s the best way to ask it?
Stephanie: I would say so, yeah. I am still in school. I’m still taking online classes. I’m still totally expecting the exam stress period to come.
Jordan: What’s that experience like?
Stephanie: I think for me it’s been really strange because I’m the kind of person who is very structured, and by having structure in my life, that’s what keeps me motivated and keeps me going. So having a schedule of classes to go to, to be physically present at, to have to participate in, that’s what helps me feel like I’m being productive. So, when I’m doing online lectures from my bed in my pyjamas at 2:00 PM it’s a bit of a strange feeling, I think.
Jordan: Well tell me a bit about that. How have your professors set up everything? Is everything just kind of happening at the same time, just virtually? Are they structuring lessons differently? What’s been done?
Stephanie: So it really varies from professor to professor. But the general kind of scheme that I have so far from my professors is they put up the lecture and it will be lecture slides or recording them talking. And then there’s a discussion board for participation marks and you can participate in the discussion board for an entire 24 hours. So my professors have been really great about keeping us updated as to how we can best engage with the material, but also do it in a timely fashion, I would say.
Jordan: What kinds of things are and aren’t happening virtually? I mean, you know, campus life is, just the day to day of it, is a huge part of the university experience. What translates to this new world and, and what is everybody missing?
Stephanie: I think what translates is everything that can be translated. Because I know that for everybody who has been experiencing a sort of loss in terms of their ability to participate in campus, they’ve been trying to compensate for it in another way. For example, the UTSU, that’s our, a student union at UofT, their elections are now being hosted online. And same thing for The Varsity’s elections, because usually when you want to run for an editor position, you have to get in front of a room of people and give your speech. But now we’re doing that all over Zoom. But I will say some of the things that have been lost definitely involve student life in terms of athletics. We ran a couple of pieces about this in the sports section actually, and a lot of people who, especially fourth years, you know, who are looking forward to these national championships, who’ve been working their entire year in order to be able to participate in this, now have that opportunity revoked. And there’s no way you can get it back.
Jordan: How have you found, speaking personally, but also just speaking to the stories you guys must hear, being at The Varsity, the level of communication and empathy for circumstances from the administration or various faculties that are, you know, still gonna be a passing and failing students over the next period?
Stephanie: So I think, personally speaking, the administration has done some really great work. Because of course not everything has been exactly on time in terms of their responses, but that’s also because they’re getting the information as we’re getting it. So they’ve been trying to keep on top of it as best they can. And speaking it as a student from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, there’s been like a huge outpouring of support for our Dean, Dr Melanie Woodin. She was very frank and forthcoming with the changes that are going to happen at the university, but she also kind of spoke to us like a mom. There’s been a lot of love for that because she was so kind and so attentive and personally answering emails from students who had all all of these questions, and it just made us feel more safe and secure in a way. So that’s something that I think was absolutely amazing on the administration’s part. And some changes we’ve also seen in terms of their ability to help us, is they’ve extended this thing called credit no credit. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this?
Jordan: I’m not.
Stephanie: So basically credit no credit is, normally there’s a deadline to credit no credit class. And as long as you pass the class, then it doesn’t count towards your GPA. And it’s kind of like a safety net in a way. And there’s usually, a maximum amount of criminal credits you can have. So they’ve extended the deadline to this after all the final marks have been sent out. So then you can choose which classes you want to credit no credit. And that’s something they’ve never done before. And also you can credit no credit core classes or the classes that you need towards your major, which is also something they’ve never done before. So it’s like changes like that that have made the whole academic stress part a little bit more alleviated.
Jordan: Tell me a little bit about how you’re doing in terms of focusing on the brass tacks of your education. Are you able to concentrate on learning right now? Do you find yourself distracted? How are you doing as a student?
Stephanie: Well for me, I think it’s one of those things, like I said before, how I need structure. So being an online classes, it’s definitely been hard to feel motivated and to feel like this is a genuine learning environment. So the way that I kind of try to work around that, is I think of every lecture that I’d have to still participate in, in some form online as another deadline because I work well with deadlines. Especially being a student journalist and everything, like that’s what keeps me going. But an interesting thing that I’ve been thinking about when it comes to this whole online class sort of situation is, before COVID-19, students with mental health issues were also kind of pushing the university to implement more online classes. Because for some people, the structure, you know, scheduled, being in the physical classroom lifestyle is actually counterproductive for their education. So I think for students like that, I’ve seen some responses on, you know, forms and like Reddit and all that, that online classes have actually been beneficial to them. So it really depends on how students learn.
Jordan: Tell me about some of the challenges you might’ve heard about from students. I know one thing that’s been brought up to me is, if the students are learning from home, not every student has the same equipment or the same reliable internet service or basic things like that.
Stephanie: Yeah, I think it’s also hard because people have different home environments. So on top of the fact that not everybody has access to the same amount of equipment or the same quality of equipment, it’s kind of– when students are in class, for some people who don’t have great home environments, that’s almost a form of escape to be able to be on campus and to be with your friends and to be doing something else. Whereas being at home, it can be even more difficult to learn in some environments.
Jordan: What do you think is coming for the next– I’m not asking you to predict anything to do with this virus or the spread, but what do you think is coming in terms of your education? Are you going to be starting third year on time? Is anybody communicating to you about that now or planning for it?
Stephanie: We haven’t really heard much information, much like solid information in terms of what’s going to happen. I think the biggest questions come in terms of, yeah, the status of the fall semester, study abroad in the fall semester, and something interesting that I like to mention is, a big question I have for the administration, is what their policy will be in terms of informing the student body about the active COVID-19 cases on campus. Because recently The Varsity ran a piece about how the centre for criminology and socio legal studies on March 15th released an email to its graduate students that one of the students had tested positive for COVID-19 but this information wasn’t made public to the wider UofT community. And when you have to was asked about it, they denied having knowledge of the situation. So in terms of protecting the student body and keeping people informed, that’s, I think, one of the biggest questions I have in terms of how the university can best handle it.
Jordan: Do you know if there’s any firm policy on that in the wake of your story being published?
Stephanie: So basically a University of Toronto spokesperson told The Varsity that if they were to be informed by public health authority of a positive case of COVID-19 affecting a UofT community member, they would follow a very prescribed process as per the health– public health directives to protect the health and safety of the community. So essentially, I think that means that if they were informed by a public health authority, then they would potentially inform the community? But that was still very vague in terms of what the actual procedure and implementation of that would look like.
Jordan: Stephanie, thank you for taking a few minutes to talk to us and I hope you get some clear answers soon. Keep asking.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Jordan: Stephanie Bai, Features Editor at The Varsity at the University of Toronto, and before that, Ken Dyment, a graphic design professor. That was The Big Story. If you would like more from us. We’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can always have more from us though. We want more from you. We want to know what you’re doing and isolation. Even if, as someone said to me today, it would just be me drinking wine, send it along to us. You can record using the voice recorder on your phone or just recording a video and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or of course, as always, you can find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. I will leave you now with a friend of this podcast. You’ve heard his voice before. He is at home in isolation, and he is expecting.
Jason: Hi, this is Jason Markusoff, Alberta correspondent from Maclean’s. It’s day four that my 20 month old son Isaac and I are home during the coronavirus crisis, trying to do some work at Maclean’s, when I can between naps. And, we got one kid now and another one on the way next month, April 28 our due date for our second child. We have a major procedure that can’t be delayed. So, we’re bracing ourselves to bring a new child into this world and this weird, uncertain time and possibly when things peak at hospitals. So we’re not sure what things are going to be there. We’re pretty sure little Isaac here won’t be able to make it to the hospital to see his baby brother. But hopefully we’ll be home shortly after. It’ll just be me visiting the hospital in all likelihood. We’re also not going to be able to have a bris. The traditional Jewish celebration of a circumcision at eight days. That’s going to be off. But you know what? We’re, you know, as a friend of ours who has a newborn says, it’s actually something you can take your mind off this crisis. So, that is, I guess, something to look forward to and it’s a lot to look forward to, but, as with everything, so many more unknowns, and it’s a lot of unknowns when you add one kid to the mix anyway, as this kid is choking himself with his yogurt spoon can attest. Got to go.
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