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The Switch to Virtual Learning


It’s been a challenge – a jarring challenge – for everybody. For students of course, but also for professors, instructors and administrators.

As much as technology has become an invaluable education tool in the past decade or so, last March’s sudden transition to online learning, as well as the current 2020-2021 curriculums, are proving to be a speed-bumped gamechanger for students and staff and a new way of doing things at the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, Bow Valley College and SAIT.

“While we are all doing our best, it can be tough to build community in the online environment,” explains Tim Rahilly, president of Calgary’s Mount Royal University (MRU), “there is a lot of support for students and faculty and we’re doing well. But we miss those spontaneous hallway and classroom conversations. While the instructor-student relationship is key, we recognize the importance of student-to- student relationships and are working hard to include it as part of the online learning environment.

“Transitioning to the online environment and getting it right has been a big investment of time. It’s important to remember that each class is unique and we continue to tailor everything we can to assure the most optimal learning experience in these challenging times.”

Even the most tech-savvy individuals were affected by the abrupt switch-over and the initial scramble. Students and instructors were thrown into the proverbial deep end and involuntarily forced to swim. Suddenly, being on-time for class, doing assignments and prepping for exams were not as crucial as the protocols of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and being ZOOM-savvy.

Granted, the terms are tech-jargon. Synchronous is instruction and learning that occurs at the same time, but not necessarily in the same place. Most commonly it refers to various forms of televisual, digital and online learning: students learn in real time but not in-person. Education experts mention benefits of synchronous learning like the interaction between participants, the exchange of knowledge and experience and real-time feedback for the instructor.

Asynchronous learning is a format where the instructor and the student are not engaged in the process at the same time, and there is no real-time interaction with other people. “For students, it means a need to be more self-directed and motivated than learning in a traditional classroom setting,” Rahilly notes. “Particularly when classes contain a lot of asynchronous components.”

Students and instructors agree about the advantages and speedbumps of virtual learning: it does require significant adjustments. “At first, the pace for changing from in-class to online was a big adjustment,” says Dr. Misheck Mwaba, president and CEO, Bow Valley College (BWC). “However, we have a 98 per cent success rate moving 9,500 learners and hundreds of instructors online in just 10 days. Learning new technologies and discovering ways of teaching and learning were also a big adjustments.

“As with any industry, there are challenges – proper equipment, finding suitable places to work, and WiFi and technology issues. We are so accustomed to face-to-face (F2F) interaction with our peers, that the change to remote learning has been significant.” He points out one example of on-line learning’s overlooked adjustments. “Our international students, in different time zones, had to drastically adjust their personal schedules and routines due to online class schedules.”

Susan Barker, vice-provost of Student Experience at the University of Calgary points out that “Whether it is online synchronous or asynchronous, some adjustments are easier to make than others. The key adjustment happened in March, and our focus was to transition into a ZOOM platform to ensure lectures were readily available for students. Over the past few months, we have been focusing on assessing student work.

“We currently do not conduct online proctoring, so there have been some issues with regard to online exams. During the initial stages of the pandemic, we were just trying to replicate the face-to-face classroom and exam experiences. We are now looking at a range of alternative assessment methods that are commensurate with the online environment.

“Instructors are now prioritizing with students and clarifying what is acceptable and not acceptable for collaboration. It is a very important learning tool,” she emphasizes. “Connection with others is vitally importance, especially during COVID, so we do want to enable it to happen, not just in exams or assessments where the students own work is required.”

SAIT has had a slight transition advantage when it comes to online learning. It has been using curriculum management technologies for several years and most content is accessible by faculty and students anywhere and anytime. SAIT does not produce a new program without making sure the curriculum is virtually available in its entirety.

While the understandable focus of the pandemic’s impact on post-secondary education continues as a drastic switch with new ways of learning, institutions like Mount Royal University, Bow Valley College, SAIT and the University of Calgary are also intensely strategizing about the COVID impact on their business bottom lines.

Recent Statistics Canada numbers crunching underscores the basic that, while the largest chunk of post-secondary revenue – almost 46 per cent – comes from government funding, tuition fees are also a significant portion – more than 29 per cent.

But StatsCan also warns that, since foreign students pay almost five times higher tuition that Canadian students, the COVID hit could mean Canadian college and university losses between $377 million and $3.4 billion of revenues, just in this academic year.

“International enrollment, disrupted by COVID-19, has been challenging for the post-secondary sector across Alberta and Canada,” Mwaba admits. “Our numbers at BWC are down with a 54 per cent decline in new international students, year-over-year. On the positive side, the number of international students continuing their programs this year is up by 30 per cent compared to this time last year.

“Taking everything into account, BWC’s total international learner enrollment is down 15 per cent, year-over-year. On the positive side, our total domestic learner enrollment is up by 4 per cent from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020.”

MRU’s Tim Rahilly notes that “While MRU’s international student numbers are less than some other post-secondaries (3.3 per cent of student enrolment), we are carefully tracking the effect of the pandemic crisis on enrolment.”

UCalgary’s Susan Barker adds, “The delivery of courses online is actually more costly than face-to-face learning opportunities, but the costs have not been passed on to students. For example, we had to purchase an institutional ZOOM license and provide additional support to put materials online and manage them. Our international student enrolment is actually up by three per cent (graduate and undergraduate combined) from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020.”

What about next year and the next semesters? To borrow the business jargon, on Calgary campuses, ‘all plans are fluid.’

“Bow Valley College’s number one goal is to ensure the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and any contractors on campus. We are planning on phasing-in our re-entry and aim to start that process in January, for our winter term. We will prioritize programs that require specialized facilities such as labs and equipment,” Mwaba says.

“UCalgary has made a decision for winter 2021 and that is to continue with the majority of classes online,” Barker adds, “but with a small increase in the number of face-to-face classes being offered. We will continually review and assess the situation.”

Tim Rahilly says Mount Royal University will continue delivering most classes online during the Winter 2021 semester, similar to the Fall 2020 semester. We will determine in-person exceptions in the next month and notify everyone so they can plan.

Working with the Government of Alberta and AHS provincial health restrictions and guidelines, SAIT has made the decision to deliver the majority of Winter 2021 programming online.