From the President’s Desk: Reducing Barriers to Remote Learning

President Flanagan addresses the online challenges impacting our learning community during the pandemic.

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Student leaders play a critical role on campus, including articulating student concerns and advocating for positive change. This week, student representatives on General Faculties Council spoke passionately and thoughtfully on behalf of their fellow students, raising our awareness of the significant barriers some students are experiencing in today’s remote learning environment.

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the university experience this year, not only at the U of A but across Canada and around the world. Adapting to remote learning has required a tremendous amount of creativity, training and hard work from students and instructors alike. University is never easy — at its best it challenges all involved to push beyond expectations. But add in the complications and demands of new technology, odd learning schedules, new forms of assessment, and online classroom dynamics and the pressures can be overwhelming and detrimental to mental and physical health.

Our student leaders raised a number of important issues at GFC. We heard that some international students face major time zone barriers which hamper their ability to participate in synchronous formats. Regularly attending class in the middle of the night is unsustainable and can result in highly adverse impacts on the personal health and wellness of our students. We heard that in some courses assessment methods, particularly participation grades that may in effect require students to attend class in the middle of the night, need to adapt to better reflect the realities of online learning. Online proctoring tools can increase student anxiety during an assessment by requiring students to show where they live, be in an interruption-free space with bright lighting, maintain a stable internet connection, maintain consistent eye contact with a webcam, all while undergoing the stress of writing an exam. Rural students may face difficulties because their access to the required technology cannot be achieved or guaranteed. Students who parent may face conflicting time commitments just when they need to be in class themselves.

Many of these issues are shared issues. Instructors also face time constraints and conflicts with familial demands. Overcoming the challenges of delivering course material remotely takes hours of extra preparation. Alternative and non-traditional forms of assessment add time and effort to an already overloaded schedule. An enormous amount of work has been done by highly dedicated U of A instructors to provide the best possible learning experiences for their students in a very difficult time.

I want to acknowledge and thank both students and instructors for all of the work that has been done to adapt. While there is hope on the horizon, we will continue to rely on remote learning environments through Spring and Summer terms and so we must continue to work together to improve things, address issues as they arise, and put in place solutions.

There is no one easy solution and the critical starting point is always a conversation between students and instructors to first identify any barriers and then to develop alternatives. We know that conversations like these are happening everyday and alternatives are actively being put in place. We are committed to ensuring that no one is left with an unresolved situation. Provost Steven Dew and I want to assure students of the following:

  • Where students have medical, technological, accessibility, or other barriers, the university is fully committed to providing reasonable solutions.
  • Students, especially those in other time zones and rural locations, with legitimate limitations in their ability to participate in synchronous learning and assessment will be offered reasonable course adaptations.
  • Students who experience barriers due to medical, disability, or other protected grounds must be reasonably accommodated.

We are also committed to ensuring that students and instructors have tools and resources to help break down the barriers, clarify expectations, and resolve individual issues. The Dean of Students is available to support all these conversations as needed.

Finally, Provost Steven Dew is immediately striking a Task Force on Remote Teaching and Learning. This group will include students and instructors and will facilitate participation from across the university. As a priority, the Task Force will move quickly on the issue of online proctoring, with the immediate goal of reducing as much as possible the use of any online proctoring in the upcoming spring/summer term. The Task Force will also develop a fast and effective process for identifying and addressing other issues as they arise.

I want to end with a note of gratitude. COVID-19 has for the moment changed university life deeply; we must work together as best we can to maintain the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff during this global pandemic. Until we can return to normal, extra efforts will continue to be needed and I am deeply thankful for all that has and will continue to be done. Above all, I want to express my sincere thanks to our student leaders for bringing some critical issues to the fore and all our dedicated instructors and administrators who are doing all they can to support our students during this challenging time. I ask that all of us continue to keep the lines of communication open, so that we can work together to handle the many challenges we face together.

Bill Flanagan
President and Vice-Chancellor