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The new normal on campus

Moving to online delivery of programs and services forced universities to be creative. Here are some of the initiatives they’ll keep as we return to campus in person this fall.


If necessity is the mother of invention, then the last year has yielded a motherlode of innovations at Canadian universities as they responded to the everchanging demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What might first have been a temporary shift made in the thick of a crisis is turning into a more permanent part of how things are done. Some of these innovations are ideas universities were considering for a while but hadn’t yet implemented or expanded; others are practices that had barely been considered previously, if at all. University Affairs spoke to people in a range of roles at universities across the country to find out which changes they made over the last year are expected to become part of their future new normal.

Alyson Byrne, assistant professor, faculty of business administration, Memorial University

When COVID-19 hit, I was about to focus more on my research, particularly work on women with high-status jobs. That was put on hold as I finished teaching my courses remotely while trying to support my graduate students and parent two children aged 2 and 4 with my spouse, all while working from home.

A few weeks into the pandemic, a journalist asked to speak with me about couples working from home together. I realized there was almost no data and started thinking how interesting that would be to study. I pivoted from my earlier research ideas and, with Julian Barling at Queen’s and Anika Cloutier at Dalhousie, we got a project together. We collected data from working couples in Canada during the pandemic’s early stages, in February and June 2020. We are looking forward to seeing the one-year effects of couples where at least one partner was forced to work from home and understand whether the experiences have positively or negatively influenced their work and relationship experiences. Many are suggesting that work-from-home arrangements will continue post-pandemic and I hope this work will support couples and organizations as they navigate those changes; maybe I can learn something from it for my own home life!

On the supervisory side, I put in place Tuesday afternoon group work time for my graduate students over Zoom. We come together, do our respective work tasks while on mute for the first two hours, then spend an hour discussing just about anything. The pandemic has not been kind to my own research progress; multiple lockdowns with two children and not being able to meet in person with co-authors have been incredibly difficult. But Tuesday afternoons have been a joyful aspect and I genuinely know my graduate students better now than I did when we were on campus.

Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president and vice-chancellor, Carleton University

The pandemic and the pivot online raised important questions about how to sustain our values and create student-centered learning environments in a digital space. We were thinking about student success and the student experience, but also about truth and reconciliation; equity, diversity and inclusion; caring and compassion; as well as innovation and ingenuity. Our groundbreaking Students as Partners Program (SaPP) had been initiated in January 2020 under the leadership of David Hornsby, our associate vice-president, teaching and learning, but the pandemic was the accelerant.

Under SaPP, students are paired to work collaboratively with instructors to design courses. We started with 20 courses. During the pandemic, this helped us respond to instructors’ needs for ideas and support in creative design and rapid course adaptation to online while giving students a tremendous experiential learning opportunity. By summer we had more than 100 courses under redesign. As an example, Lisa Mills in the School of Public Policy and Administration worked with third-year student Dilki Jagoda to develop a first-year course to help future policy-makers link the policy development cycle to anti-racist and decolonization objectives.

The SaPP model accelerated innovation in teaching and has had tangible results in better preparing students for their transition into the world of work. It creates the opportunity to recognize and include knowledge generated outside the academic institution – Indigenous knowledge systems, for example – and to empower our students to offer their skills, knowledge and understandings in an academic setting. We have almost 300 courses in all five faculties redesigned to date and look forward to expanding the program this fall with increasing opportunities for partnerships across the range of spaces, from the classroom to our research environments, community partnerships and civic engagement. Bringing students and faculty together to design and co-create courses is a powerful value statement – it says we will get through this together.

Paul Chesser, vice-president, advancement, Concordia University

The pandemic initially imposed unique challenges on our fundraising efforts, particularly our ability to travel and hold in-person events. Nevertheless, Our Campaign for Concordia: Next-Gen. Now is doing remarkably well and we expect to surpass our objective by our 50th anniversary in 2024-25. Our partners have allowed us to make virtual announcements, such as the recent $2.5 million gift from BMO Financial Group. The crisis also accentuated areas of urgent need, such as making an impact in the lives of students and in critical fields of research. During the first wave, we raised more than $1 million through our COVID-19 Emergency Student Relief Fund and Student Emergency and Food Fund.

Due to travel restrictions, we initiated a virtual roundtable series to provide an update from campus, share a draft of our strategic priorities and introduce our new president, Graham Carr, to influential alumni and friends. It’s proven tremendously successful and generated insights that I’m not sure we would have elicited in person.

I believe that the expanded reach through technology will continue post-pandemic. We introduced CU at Home virtual programming that allows us to feature alumni who might not otherwise return to campus. Most talks feature audiences of 100 or more. In the future, we will simulcast the event to our alumni audience world-wide; we should have been doing this for years. Also, the all-important individual donor meetings often relied on availability of the donor to coincide with a trip to that region. With the effectiveness of video meetings, we can offer an array of opportunities for alumni to connect with us. That isn’t saying we won’t travel anymore but I see a future with less travel and more contact with our most important stakeholders. Post-pandemic, we will make the best use of our most limited resource – time – and our new best practices.

Jocelyn Beaucher, director of workplace and campus health and safety, Université de Sherbrooke

We paid particular attention to the residences. In March 2020, we saw right away that we wouldn’t be able to clear them out. We had nearly 100 international students who were staying with us, and then in September we had over 500 students return to the residences. The Université de Sherbrooke set itself apart among Quebec universities in that it continued to offer many in-person educational activities. About 60 per cent of fall semester courses were held in person. We knew we absolutely needed to protect students and help them to maintain as normal a life as possible.

When the semester started last fall – and we intend to do the same thing next fall – we introduced the concept of family bubbles. In a given geographic area, a maximum of 10 people are identified as belonging to the same family, within which the usual rules are then relaxed a bit. They leave their residence to attend class, but since they live in the same area they can share the same kitchen or common area a bit more and have room to breathe and do more social activities. They’re aware that there’s a small risk that comes with [the family bubble] – if one of the people in the family gets the virus or tests positive, then just like a normal family, the others have to go into isolation. There were 30 or 40 families. Not all of the students decided to join a family group, however they followed the rules by wearing a mask at all times, kept two metres’ distance, disinfected and so on.

We set up a testing clinic in one of our residence buildings. It’s still operating today. Until [the week of April 19, 2021], we didn’t have any outbreaks in our residences. We had our first one that week, a small outbreak affecting five people, which shows us that the students are taking this seriously.

Rajiv Jhangiani, associate vice-president, teaching and learning, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Although we had offered some fully online courses before, post-pandemic, KPU will embrace a lot more blended and online delivery. A majority of our students report that they are very interested in taking at least some of their courses online; most of our faculty are interested in teaching some courses online too. There will continue to be more flexibility for learners. We recorded optional synchronous activities for students learning from different time zones but found local students also benefited from being able to pause and replay certain elements of recorded lectures. We’ve seen a shift away from traditional, high-stakes assessments towards e-portfolios and projects.

A growing embrace of a pedagogy of care, where instructors recognize that learners are operating in a broader context and with a host of non-academic pressures, is one of the most positive outcomes of this past year. This could include more flexibility and scaffolding for learning, supportive resources embedded in course syllabi, such as how to access emergency financial assistance, and course policies that do not require documentation for absences due to personal losses.

We used to struggle with the allocation of our limited resources for professional development to faculty across our five campuses. This year we’ve had record levels of engagement with online faculty workshops. These are not just about how to teach online; it’s everything from universal design for learning to conversations about instructional design practices for face-to-face classes. Our faculty love the asynchronous professional learning, like pre-recorded webinars, so we’re preparing those bite-sized modules whenever they need it, paired with optional drop-in synchronous sessions where they can meet our strategists online and work through specific elements of their courses. This August, we’ll be launching a comprehensive framework for faculty development that will embody this modular, online synchronous and asynchronous model for everything we do.

Jen Gonzales, executive director, student affairs, Ryerson University

At the pandemic’s start, a cross-collaborative team in student affairs researched, developed, designed and launched, in May 2020, an innovative and multidisciplinary curriculum for incoming students called Get Ryerson Ready. The online system offered students a well-rounded introduction to university life, from learning study strategies and understanding university writing, to preparation for university math and virtual events like game nights and discussion circles as a way to build community. Survey results revealed that most students felt more prepared, confident and clearer about their academic and community responsibilities as a result of participating. They reported an overall decrease in concern in areas including attendance of online lectures, comprehending course material, and accessing student and academic support. We also learned that students appreciated the opportunity to start their transition to university earlier than mid-summer. As a result, we are excited that students who choose Ryerson can access that support as early as May.

We launched a community of practice for all managers across student affairs as well, to share information and wise practices with colleagues to support each unit’s mandate and outcomes. This has helped us build team culture and collaborate effectively on priority initiatives such as an emerging anti-Black racism strategy to ensure the support and success of Black students is kept at the forefront of our work. Another key outcome was the implementation of a new student affairs curriculum that communicates the what students will learn after interacting with our services.

In some ways, because of the pandemic, we’ve been able to serve even more students because of changes we’ve made. Our career and co-op centre saw a 65 percent decrease in no-show rates for 1:1 career education appointments compared to 2019 as a result of switching to a virtual career education format.

Melissa Padfield, vice-provost and university registrar, University of Alberta

The shift to online student recruitment is one of the best examples of a change that we’re hoping to carry forward. Being unable to invite prospective students to our campuses or visit them in their high schools was challenging. As a result, we are piloting a digital viewbook – a promotional tool for telling prospective students all about our university – and last year ran a successful online open house, among many virtual engagements.

We also hope that virtual access to courses and services, coupled with piloting additional ways to meet English language proficiency requirements and testing optional policies for SAT and ACT exams, will support our efforts to diversify our student population by making the application process more accessible. We’re also looking to keep adjustments to deferred admissions, to the expansion of our ability to share digital documents, such as transcripts, with fellow institutions, and to the remote delivery of student services, at least in part.

Graduates are always at the heart of our convocation ceremonies, but this year we faced the same challenge that every university did — making sure the student presence was still there in a virtual ceremony. We settled on using student-created videos. Before the pandemic, we would have worried that home-made content wouldn’t have high enough production values. But the pandemic has been a great equalizer when it comes to our collective expectations around what makes a good video. We embraced the idea that the authenticity of a message is what matters most. And to be fair to our students, they created great videos using nothing more than their phones. They were rightly the stars of convocation. Moving forward, we’ll be looking for more opportunities to bring our students into the production of our ceremonies.

Catherine Simard, professor of science and technology education, Université du Québec à Rimouski

In education, most researchers are focused on school environments, schools and students. The challenge for them since March has been twofold: not having access to the research environment, and not being able to conduct certain research the way we used to.

In my case, I adapted my research and made certain methodological choices without losing my research goals, but there were some sacrifices I had to make. I had to switch to digital tools to have access to teenagers and work with them remotely.

But I see other colleagues who can’t work on their own research because the current health situation simply doesn’t allow it.

We’re hoping to get back to normal. In my case, my work is about the teaching of science subjects, where theory and practice go hand-in-hand in every class. We expect there are still going to be some challenges this fall. We’ll probably still have to do some work online. We’re ready to deal with it, but we’re definitely looking forward to going back to class full-time. At the Université du Québec à Rimouski, we have smaller groups, so there’s a sense of closeness and a quality to the in-person discussions that’s hard to reproduce online.

We’ve made huge strides in terms of mastering digital technologies. Definitely, there are certain aspects that I’m going to keep as part of my practice. For more complex science knowledge, I’m planning to keep using short videos that people can watch before the class. That should help enrich my training support strategies. Also, I’m sure I’ll maintain the online option for my students’ formative evaluations.

With collaboration from Pascale Castonguay.

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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