University post-pandemic plans still unclear

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Striking a balance is key

by hammad ali, contributor

Recently, the Leader Post ran a story on the future of university education in Saskatchewan. Officials from both of the province’s universities shared their interest in a major reshaping of how universities will operate post-pandemic. In particular, there are discussions about the possibility of more online/remote learning classes. Before the pandemic, about 10 per cent of all classes at the University of Regina were delivered online. During the pandemic, the situation flipped. Once a substantial portion of the population has been vaccinated and we can begin a return to in-person classes, many feel that the right approach is to find a balance somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. Probably the strongest argument in favour of this is the rise in enrolment among remote communities, however there are also arguments against a permanent shift towards online learning, meaning there are no easy answers to this problem.

Dr. Marc Spooner, a professor in the Faculty of Education says that the pivot to remote delivery was a good move during the pandemic. However, he was careful to draw the distinction between a move to remote learning due to an emergency situation, and a deliberate paradigm shift to online learning. Spooner feels there needs to be careful planning, training, and modifications to most resources before a successful transition can be made. He adds that the university should be careful not to essentially abandon our commitment to face to face learning, because a good university education is more than just formal classroom training. University education needs exploration, growth, and everything that goes into living and learning in and as part of a community. Most of that would be missing in a highly structured learning environment, even if the structure itself allowed for some in-person interactions.

When asked about whether tuition and other fees should reflect a change to more emphasis on online learning, Dr. Spooner mentioned that contrary to what one might expect, offering a lot of classes online does not actually result in significant cost savings, and it might actually be more expensive to run a dual track university. However, Spooner says that the cost of college education has increasingly been passed on to the students, with the government funding going down steadily each year. He feels this is an unfortunate trend, and our focus should be on reversing this trend.

Students, who have been taking online courses since March, have often struggled with the transition to online only, although that’s not the case for everyone. While most students recognize the need for the shift to remote learning, most expressed concerns that it did not work for them. Some added that while a few introductory courses may well work, advanced classes need a lot more discussion and interaction that is simply missing in the online paradigm. Not surprisingly, most students also feel that they are not using the majority of campus resources and fees should be adjusted to reflect this reality, as well as help offset some costs students are facing in order to be able to study from home. At least one student raised concerns about mental health and the lack of social interactions, even pointing out that many of us learn by studying in a group setting with our peers. Counter to the point raised about rise in enrolment from remote communities, one student expressed concern that many others might actually not consider college education anymore, or drop out if they are currently in college given the lack of in-person interaction and other stress factors.

Students have pointed out that some classes like language are particularly suited to in-person classes, while some other classes might actually be better delivered online. As long as students can choose, possibly with flexibility of schedule in mind, a mix of online and in-person classes may work. However, some students are feeling concerned about internship or practicum requirements in their program and how to make it work in a largely online teaching environment.

Overall, students have universally pointed out that the community dimension of university is extremely important, and are concerned that a more long-term or substantial move to online teaching will have severe impact on the learning experience and may even cause many to forego considering university education. While Spooner makes valid points about how even the current remote learning situation has not saved costs significantly, students feel some fee adjustment is essential given the lack of access to school amenities and resources. Whenever we are able to return to a more normal state of things, it will definitely be very interesting to see how universities in Saskatchewan, and all across the world, cope with the experiences of the past year.

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