Fall is an exciting time at McGill with the start of the academic year. But this year the excitement is mixed with some uncertainty – for students, staff and faculty – as it promises to a semester unlike any other in University history. “We don’t have a playbook for any of this,” says Chris Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs). “This fall is going to look different, but it’s still McGill, it’s still our students, it’s still our professors, it’s still our staff.”
The Reporter spoke with Buddle and his colleagues Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies), and Fabrice Labeau, Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning), about some of the pressing issues for many students, including academic planning, remote learning, tuition and other fees, and health and safety.
What principles have guided McGill’s academic planning from the very beginning of the pandemic in March to now?
Chris Buddle: Throughout the pandemic, the safety and well-being of our community has always been our priority. We’ve been very diligent in following public health directives, and making sure those directives are put in place at McGill.
The academic planning group has really been focused on building a robust plan for online delivery of courses in the fall and also some in-person activities. We have put a lot of additional resources, time and effort into supporting professors around remote delivery of classes.
But, we know it is important to recognize the demands and challenges facing students as we think about remote delivery of courses – be it students studying in different time zones, questions of internet connectivity, or how important engagement is as a part of the McGill experience.
How will professors establish and nurture the connections with students that are so essential to the learning experience?
CB: March was like a 1.0 version of what it means for McGill to do classes remotely. One thing is certain, we don’t want to be a Zoom university, where it’s: Here’s my lecture, hit play, and you’re done. We want to think about flipped classrooms, where professors have students look at material on their own time and then use some of the classroom time for more discussion or inquiry-based learning. That kind of engagement is absolutely critical in the classroom environments.
It’s not just videoconferencing. It means using virtual breakout rooms and other technologies that facilitate collaborative learning and interactive opportunities. The idea is to be flexible, adaptable and to use lots of different tools.
Angela Campbell: Although students obviously have a strong interest in having a connection with the instructor, the instructors also really want that connection. For an instructor, it’s daunting to look into a bunch of Zoom boxes and not know how your students are doing.
We’ve heard from instructors and there’s a strong incentive for them to create those opportunities for engagement because it makes the responsibility and the job of teaching that much more interesting and fulfilling.
How has the University supported instructors in preparing for a full semester of remote learning?
CB: There’s been a series of webinars that have been hosted by TLS. As well, all faculties had what we called a faculty lead – pedagogical experts who have expertise in online teaching as well.
On top of that, instructors were able to get more individualized support, especially some of the professors who were teaching very large classes and really wanted to maximize opportunities for engagement and the right kind of teaching online.
We are also putting in place opportunities to hire students who will directly help professors in the remote delivery – not in terms of teaching content or grading, it’s really about helping with the remote delivery itself.
The academic planning group also spent a lot of time producing guidelines for teaching and learning in a remote environment. We didn’t derogate from our current policies at McGill, but we wanted to make it clear how those policies can be read in light of the online learning environment.
How will McGill make sure that students have equal access to the distance learning methods used by each professor?
AC: The University framework on regulations and policies makes it very clear that there is a duty to accommodate when the circumstances are such that that the students face a barrier with respect to access to the learning materials or to the actual class itself. Instructors are being advised of that.
CB: This is a challenge. We can’t have students getting up at 2 am because they live in different times zones or, students who don’t have access to the internet connectivity that livestreamed classes require.
We’ve strongly encouraged that all material be recorded and then made available online. There are some instances where the professor has a pedagogical reason why a live or synchronous material might be required. But in the vast majority of cases instructors have fully bought into that idea of making sure the material is available.
There is also substantial financial aid to help when students don’t have the right technologies or need additional resources to make sure that it is accessible to them.
Fabrice Labeau: Let me just touch upon the Student Aid portion of this. At the end of the winter semester last year, we started mobilizing as much as we could additional student aid for our students as a result of the pandemic. This year, a lot of the focus is on the availability of the technology that students need.
What is the plan for remote evaluations and exams?
CB: People often think that remote delivery is the biggest change in terms of how we’re doing classes, but in fact, assessments and final exams are probably the biggest change. It’s created all kinds of additional challenges that we would never have predicted.
We’ve tried to create some clear guidelines around windows of time for assessments so that students who are living somewhere else aren’t at a disadvantage
In some ways the number of exam conflicts increases because we have larger periods of overlap. But, at the same time, we’re offering more flexibility to students because of larger windows.
Students who are concerned about their own situation need to reach out to the instructor. One of our guiding principles is making sure that we view these situations through possible accommodations if students are in a place of conflict with any kinds of assessment.
What about academic integrity? How will final exams be monitored?
CB: Typically, there are invigilators in a in a gymnasium but, of course, an online exam that’s held remotely is not done in that way.
I think this is something that illustrates, first of all, that we trust our students, which is a very important principle and value.
But also, it means that our instructors are rethinking how they write exams and how they make exams that are not based as much on facts, but more on conceptual thinking, which is much more valuable pedagogically and much more interesting.
Remote learning will be challenging on an academic level. But how is McGill addressing the challenges students will face in terms of isolation, loneliness and other mental health issues?
FL: From the beginning of the summer, a group out of Student Services has been designing the remote experience outside of the classroom.
Very early in the process, all the services were moved online. But, as well, they have been putting together programs that allow, for instance, connection between peers, especially for new students trying to create that social connection.
The First Friend program, which pairs a first-year undergraduate or graduate student with a peer in the same Faculty and time zone, is one example. Another one is the Buddy Program, which pairs new international students with a student mentor who can offer linguistic support, cultural guidance, and information about life at McGill.
Also, a lot of Student Services’ programming regarding mental health and workshops for students that are typically delivered on campus have moved online.
Are mental health services entirely online or are there in-person options?
FL: There will be both. The Remote Student Life website lists all the services now available on campus and online. Of course, most of the in-person services will be COVID-19 related and require an appointment
How is McGill minimizing the chance of COVID-19 transmission on campus?
FL: In terms of health and safety, the priority is to try and minimize the possibility of transmission anywhere on campus. We stress two-meter distancing, face coverings when you’re moving around, limiting the number of people gathered together, hand washing, additional cleaning of the surfaces etc. It gives us some reassurance in terms of health and safety, irrespective of what people do off campus.
That, to me, is extremely important because we have zero control over what people do once they leave campus. People may test negative one day but come back to campus the next day and be positive for COVID-19. Our safety measures ensure that the likelihood of transmission happening on campus is very low.
What about residences?
FL: In terms of residences, we have drastically reduced the density. Only our hotel-style residences are open now, and there is a basically 50 per cent occupancy. It’s one person per room instead of two and everyone has a private bathroom.
There are stringent rules in terms of gathering, in terms of visitors, etc. As we see whether or not these rules are respected, we will enforce them more forcefully if needed, including with disciplinary measures. It’s one of these things that we need to have zero tolerance for.
Are there procedures in place if someone tests positive for COVID-19 on campus or in residence?
FL: If a case happens on campus, there is a protocol in terms of: identifying where the person who tested positive went on campus; closing some areas if needed; disinfecting the area; contacting the Direction de la santé publique to make sure that they’re aware of the case; and potentially working with them to reach the people on campus who may have come into contact with the person testing positive.
It is something similar in residences, except on top of that, we have rooms that are reserved for people who test positive so they can self-isolate while remaining on the property.
Will the McGill community be notified if someone tests positive?
FL: In terms of who would be notified about a case, we have to balance the need for transparency with the need for confidentiality of the individual. This means we must minimize the number of people whom we tell about a single case, but we have protocols in place in case of an outbreak that would require communication to the whole community.
As universities around the world move online, some students have voiced concerns about paying full tuition this semester, due to the possible impact upon quality of learning. What is the administration’s response to these concerns?
FL: McGill is not changing tuition fees because we don’t expect that there’s going to be a decrease in the quality of teaching, or a decrease in the value of the McGill degree.
Of course, we realize the difficulty facing some students for whom, because of the pandemic, their financial situation may have changed. To address that, we’ve put more resources into student aid to make sure that the people who have who have the greatest need are the ones who actually receive the most aid.
I would also remind people of the commitment of the Provost to put 30 per cent of the net tuition revenue into student aid, which is something that we’re still committed to. So, whenever there’s an increase in tuition, there is a corresponding increase in student aid.
And non-tuition fees?
FL: In terms of non-tuition fees, I’m hearing a lot about the fact that services cannot be accessed because of the pandemic.
First, it’s important to realize that some of the services students are paying for are not really for services that the individual student will necessarily receive. Take Student Services, for example. Not all students take advantage of Student Services, but all students pay into it.
More importantly, almost all of these services have been transferred to the remote platform. People don’t have less access to Student Services because it is online. In fact, more appointments were made the past few months because of the ease with which you can go from one appointment to the next when you’re online. So, the service has not decreased. The service is still there. And we still need to fund that service.
But in the case of something like Athletics & Recreation, we realized that students who are not in Montreal won’t benefit from the facilities, despite the fact that A&R has moved a lot of its programming online, and will be supporting a lot of the fitness program online. That’s why there’s been a reduction in these fees.
Students who may be registered in courses where there is a course-specific fee may have seen that some of these fees have disappeared. Let’s say you are in a course where there’s a trip and there’s an additional fee for that trip. If the trip doesn’t take place, of course, we cancel the fee. A lot of these fees have been cancelled for activities that could not take place in the in the fall semester.