Back-to-School: Fall Start, Part II


Classes will be held this fall.  That much is clear.  At this point, it’s not yet clear how classes will be delivered.

Just three weeks ago universities were noncommittal about a return to campus. Today three broad back-to-school approaches are becoming clear: online, hybrid, and in-person.  Among the leading higher education destination countries, Canadian, British, and Australian universities are leaning toward hybrid or online options; American universities are determined to return to campus. 

How are the approaches different?

In-person courses allow you to interact face-to-face with fellow students and professors, and to collaborate with them on a set schedule.  You’re most familiar with this approach. You’ve been doing this since you started going to school. Unsurprisingly it’s the format most preferred by students. The key question is to how to do it safely.

The “hybrid” approach (also known as “blended”) balances face-to-face and online environments. Hybrid courses can take many formats.  For example, lectures which are typically larger gatherings may be held online. Your learning is augmented by small group in-person discussions. Online learning reduces the need for on-campus meetings, and facilitates social distancing.  

The emergency online learning measures in response to COVID-19 were a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode.  What you experienced was “emergency remote teaching” not true online learning. The “online learning” being proposed by universities is intentionally designed to be delivered fully online. University professors would use pedagogical strategies for instruction, student engagement, and assessment that are specific to learning in a virtual environment.

Remote Learning

“What we did [this semester] is not exactly online learning,” says Duke University’s Shawn Miller, director of the University’s teaching and learning centre. “It [was] a first-aid approach. In well-designed online courses, faculty have time to prepare, to think about designing a course with pre-recorded and other off-line materials. Without planning, faculty just take their face-to-face lectures and put them online.”  A video recently published by McGill University demonstrates how some quick-thinking professors were able to implement a range of remote learning experiences.  Examples include band performances via Zoom, lab and anatomy simulations, and step-by-step lab videos with embedded quizzes.

Universities are investing significantly to adapt courses to make online learning effective and engaging for students. The University of Calgary hired 10 graduate students as learning technology coaches, and Western University engaged 250 student interns to help with preparation for online delivery. In the United Kingdom, a consortium of 10 universities was awarded £3.7 million to develop partly online postgraduate conversion courses in artificial intelligence and data science. Initiatives such as these promise much-improved remote learning experiences this fall.

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