Supporting students and instructors

Working together toward a positive teaching and learning experience during COVID

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President Flanagan and I have heard the concerns that have been raised concerning online learning and we are committed to addressing them. As the president has noted, we will be ensuring that the work needed to reduce the barriers to successful online learning happens as quickly as possible. I want to provide some further detail about how we are supporting students and instructors now and into the future.

Like other post-secondary institutions around the world, we have been forced to quickly pivot how we deliver the vast majority of our courses and programs to respond to the COVID emergency. This has taken tremendous efforts and understanding by our entire community - but particularly by our students and instructors. I think we can be proud of how well our community has responded and worked to keep each other safe during this pandemic. I want to thank you all - instructors, students, and staff - for your extraordinary efforts to adapt to these challenging circumstances. However, we have heard that there is more we must do to address the needs of those among us most severely affected by the pandemic.

Our journey has not been entirely smooth. Since the transition to remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 emergency, some students continue to identify difficulties created by time zone differences, internet access, and examination proctoring tools. I want to reassure these students that we hear these concerns and are committed to resolving them. Instructors are also struggling with imposed restrictions and adapting quickly in the home and work environments. Students and instructors must continue to receive resources and support for these challenges, and we will explore additional opportunities to remove barriers to a positive learning experience.

Resources and information for students on adapting to, and succeeding in, the online learning environment continue to be provided through the Academic Success Centre in the Office of the Dean of Students. Students can also reach out to instructors, chairs, and the Dean of Students for support and assistance.

The University has a long standing commitment to supporting the academic freedom of our instructors to choose the most appropriate pedagogical approach to achieving their identified learning outcomes for their students, and has developed resources to support instructors in making appropriate and effective choices on how to adapt their approaches to a remote environment, and for deans and chairs on how to support instructors and faculty members. These resources address balancing synchronous and asynchronous components of courses, best-practices in a variety of assessment methods including participation grades and alternatives to traditional exams, and the circumstances in which the University has a duty to accommodate. We continue to refine these resources as we learn about the needs of our students and our instructors. These documents are being refreshed and redistributed, and instructors can reach out to the Centre for Teaching and Learning for support.

International students abroad, rural students, and Indigenous students are most affected by challenges related to synchronous remote instruction. Challenges include wide time zone differences and ongoing connectivity issues, which undermine the use of participation grades, and the use of online-proctoring tools. These issues create barriers to a positive learning experience for these students.

Students should be assured that they will not be penalized when they cannot be reasonably expected to participate in synchronous learning and assessment activities, such as those that occur between 11 pm and 5 am in the student's time zone, or require the student to travel away from home to find a reliable internet connection when COVID restrictions are in place. Courses that have a synchronous component must offer alternatives for students who can't reasonably be expected to participate. Many adaptations have been made by students and by instructors to maintain a high quality learning environment, and to ensure positive experiences and outcomes within the constraints of our situation. Still, we can do more to support those most severely affected. Students are encouraged to raise these issues with their instructors, and as a best practice, instructors should reach out to their students to inquire about possible challenges.

Students who experience barriers due to medical, disability, or other protected grounds must be reasonably accommodated. We need to ensure such challenging circumstances are identified and discussed with the instructor, or the chair, or Dean of Students, and alternatives are explored and offered. As we work through these challenges, we will all do better in this new learning environment.

Immediate Responses Possible:

There is not a single solution to remedy the challenges that students are facing, and the best solutions will result from conversations between students and their instructors to determine plans that best meet the objectives of the respective classes and the students. We are committed to ensuring that students and instructors have tools and resources to support those conversations, and we are hearing that more work is needed to meet this commitment and that more efforts are required to provide tools and resources to support these conversations.

In addition to ongoing work by the GFC Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE), we are striking a Provost's Task Force on Remote Teaching and Learning effective immediately. The Executive Sponsor is the Deputy Provost, and the Task Force will be co-chaired by Dr. John Nychka and Dr. Helen Vallianatos and will include students and instructors. We will also implement a consultation process to facilitate participation from stakeholders. The Task Force will specifically focus on the most urgent concerns, including identifying a path to reducing the use of online proctoring in the upcoming term and eliminating the use of online proctoring as soon as possible. The Task Force will work on developing the best and fastest methods to implement effective solutions to other identified issues including asynchronous teaching and participation, and effective remote assessment practices and strategies. The Task Force will also provide advice to CLE as it develops a plan for the future, as the ongoing work of enhanced remote teaching and learning evolves.

I am grateful to students for raising these issues, and to instructors for being broadly responsive and open to student needs, and also raising their own challenges.

It has been a long journey to adapt to these pandemic conditions, and we are weary. However, our students have asked us to go a bit further. As an institution that prides itself on excellence, I think we have it in us to go that extra distance.

We all hope to carry forward the best practices developed by our creative and caring community into the future of the University of Alberta. These investments of time, energy, and intellectual resources will be valuable far into the future.

Steven Dew
Provost & Vice-president (Academic)