KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Public health restrictions arising from COVID-19 have led to announcements of “primarily online” fall and even winter semesters at most Nova Scotia post-secondary institutions, including Dalhousie University.
Most students do not want an online education, and many are calling for reductions in tuition fees to compensate for what they perceive might be a lower-quality education and experience. Some might choose to wait for a return to on-campus delivery.
Most professors do not want to teach in an online environment because they value engaging with students in discussions, debates, and laboratory demonstrations. There are many good pedagogical reasons why most post-secondary education continues to take place in a face-to-face, on-campus delivery mode despite the longstanding availability of technology to support online teaching.
Professor and student preferences aside, there is a more pressing problem looming.
There is precious little time for professors to change all of their courses to an online mode of delivery.
Before COVID-19, it was understood that a year or more of planning, development, and refinement was required for a single, high quality online course offering. Now, professors have scarcely three months to change over all of their courses in time for the fall semester.
Compounding the challenge is the fact all professors are working from home without access to regular university resources such as high-speed broadband internet, and many are caring for children and other loved ones. Furthermore, most professors are responsible for funded research programs, some of which are of urgent priority because they focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically May through August is the busiest time for most research laboratories because teaching responsibilities tend to be reduced.
Something has to give, or professors will burn out and there will be no-one left to teach classes.
One solution is to hire more academic staff to shoulder some of the work. Another possibility is to greatly expand availability of teaching assistants. Both solutions are costly, but so are burnout and stress leaves.
University Boards of Governors are caught in the middle.
They have limited resources to provide their professors with the support necessary to deliver top-quality online education, and students are calling for reduced tuition fees which would further reduce available resources. In a worrisome recent development, Mount Saint Vincent University announced a significant reduction in the number of contract academic staff, further increasing the workload of remaining academic staff.
Nova Scotia Universities and Colleges need a significant and urgent infusion of funding from the provincial government to cover the increased costs of converting post-secondary education into an entirely different mode of operation over the next three months. Universities cannot be expected to cover those costs alone, and neither should students.
Now is the time to make that investment.
Dr. David A. Westwood is a Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, and the president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association
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