Even though the number of new COVID-19 cases has fallen dramatically in B.C., it doesn't mean that SFU students can expect to return to classrooms in the near future.
In fact, it's possible that remote learning will continue not only through the fall, but also into the spring semester, according to Jon Driver, SFU's vice president academic and provost.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Driver said that nearly 100 percent of SFU's education will be delivered remotely in the fall semester.
"We haven't made a decision yet, but we think it's quite likely this will continue through the next term as well," he said.
This month, students made a presentation to the SFU board seeking lower tuition fees because their education is being delivered remotely. The board has not embraced that idea.
"We, of course, plan to deliver the same courses," Driver said. "We plan to deliver the same learning outcomes for students. The methods will change.
"We know that some students are not happy about having to work in this sort of online and remote environment," he continued. "But we also know that other students are actually quite happy working in that environment once they’ve experienced it. They realize there were some benefits—and particularly for students for whom English are not a first language."
Driver noted that students who are learning remotely do not have to pay recreation fees because the gym is not open.
Students also won't have to pay additional fees imposed in connection with the use of materials in laboratory courses. And the U-Pass program is on hold, which means students don't have to pay for that, either.
Below, you can see an edited and abridged transcript of the Straight's interview with Driver.
Georgia Straight: What was involved in transforming SFU to vastly more online instruction in the wake of the pandemic? Can you go back to what you went through?
Jon Driver: Obviously we had to move extremely quickly because the order from the provincial health officer that there were to be no gatherings of more than 50 people. When that order came out in the middle of March—obviously many of our classes have more than 50 people, as do our cafeterias, and so on and so on. So, within a week I think, had asked all of our instructors to change from in-person teaching. We’re calling it "remote teaching" because we kind of reserve the idea of online teaching for...a very sophisticated set of online programs that we have. So the transition was really to what we would call remote methods, which really meant that people moved their in-person teaching practices simply to using technologies, such as Zoom and BlueJeans [Meeting Platform]. That enabled them to just keep going while there was physical distance from students. So that was very much an emergency situation. Frankly, the ability of our instructors to do that just amazed me.
Georgia Straight: How so?
Jon Driver: You know, it was difficult for students. It was difficult for instructors. I was actually surprised to hear both from some students and some instructors that they thought it had gone remarkably well, considering what we had to do and how quickly we had to do it.
We currently have over 18,000 students enrolled in the summer term. And then on into the fall, we’ll hopefully have even more students enrolled. We’ve had a slightly longer breathing space to prepare for the summer. Obviously, people who were going to teach in the fall will have the whole summer to get their courses ready.
I think what we’re seeing is that people are, first of all, embracing the technology. And I would say that we have been quite lucky because like just about every other university, we have an online learning management system in place that already allows for a lot of interaction between students and instructors.
Almost all of the materials now that students that would need from the library are available online. And in fact, when I was teaching last year, my students didn’t need to buy a textbook. They actually didn’t need to go to the library unless they wanted to because all the readings for the course were available through our learning management system.
People had already been experimenting with ideas like the flip classroom where the instructor records if there’s going to be a lecture component. You record the lecture and have it up online. Students view the lecture in their own time. Then under normal circumstances, you bring the students onto campus not to hear you speak but to engage in more debate and discussion rather than just sitting there and listening to you lecture.
So that idea of the flipped classroom was already taking place at SFU. And also at all the other universities in the province. There’s been quite a bit of experimentation about different ways of teaching with the technology that’s available to us.
I think what we’re seeing now is more and more people are learning from those experiences. We have a fairly large centre that supports teaching and learning on campus. And they have been providing online workshops, all kinds of online resources, so that instructors who are having to now move to these remote methods can take advantage of the knowledge and experience of people who are basically experts in teaching at the postsecondary level.
Georgia Straight: SFU was a pioneer in this area—correct me if I’m wrong. I’m wondering if that left you in a better position when this sudden shock hit the university.
Jon Driver: No, you’re right. We do have a group of instructors and a group of support staff who are very experienced in online education. And in fact, even before the pandemic hit, roughly 10 percent of our undergraduate credits were delivered through online courses.
Interestingly, our whole online program started many years ago, really to serve people in more remote communities. But it turns out that most of the online courses are actually taken by students who are physically present on our campuses.
There’s a convenience with an online course that enables you to work around other responsibilities that students more and more tend to have these days—part-time jobs, family responsibilities and things like this. I think we were well-positioned in the sense that we did have a core of experienced people who know how to do this.
Georgia Straight: Do you have an idea of what percentage will have to be delivered in this remote way in the fall? Will it be 100 percent or 50 percent?
Jon Driver: It will be almost 100 percent.
Georgia Straight: And that’s through the fall semester?
Jon Driver: Through the fall. We haven’t made a decision yet but we think it’s quite likely that this will continue through the next term as well.
Georgia Straight: Through January as well?
Jon Driver: Yeah.
Georgia Straight: SFU has a semester system so you’re not locked into a yearlong commitment. One of the things that’s come up at other institutions from students is if they’re learning this way, will they get a break on their tuition?
Jon Driver: Under normal circumstances we charge a small extra fee for online courses.
Georgia Straight: I didn’t know that.
Jon Driver: It recognizes the costs of delivering remotely are actually a little higher. Now, we won’t be doing that, obviously. There are student petitions circulating that tuition should be reduced. There was a presentation made to the board of governors at their May meeting from students arguing that tuition should be reduced.
We, of course, plan to deliver the same courses. We plan to deliver the same learning outcomes for students. The methods will change. We know that some students are not happy about having to work in this sort of online and remote environment. But we also know that other students are actually quite happy working in that environment once they’ve experienced it.
They realize there were some benefits—and particularly for students for whom English is not a first language. For example, even if you’re live on Zoom, you can participate through the chat function. Of course, some students are quite shy about speaking in public but will be more willing to type their thoughts into a chat room and participate that way.
So there are advantages and disadvantages of remote learning just as there are advantages and disadvantages of in-person learning. And we will also be, by the way, supporting students to understand how they can first of all use these remote environments effectively.
But second, I think we’re going to be providing quite a lot of support around time management. Because as more of the courses are delivered—what we’re calling asynchronously so that you don’t have to show up on Thursday morning at 9:30. So as more courses are being sort of placed online and the students are timing their own workloads around those courses, I think some of the students—especially the ones who are coming in new this year—are going to need some support in time management.
And we’ll be providing support for students who are in the remote learning environment. as well as [to] the instructors who were having to work there.
Georgia Straight: What impact is this new world we’re living in having on graduate education?
Jon Driver: That’s a good question. Can I just add one thing about the tuition?
Georgia Straight: Of course.
Jon Driver: We are going to stop charging certain fees. I just wanted to say that. For things where there is a very direct cost associated with a fee. I wanted to explain that we’re not being completely heartless. So for example, we’re not charging a recreation fee because the gym is not open. Quite a lot of our courses have special fees associated with them—typically, laboratory courses where there are materials that get used up. So those fees won’t be charged.
U-Pass is on hold right now. So I wanted to explain that.
On the graduate side, on the one hand, graduate students are perhaps somewhat better placed in financial terms because most of the work opportunities for graduate students will continue. So to work as a teaching assistant, working as a research assistant with a professor, and of course, many of our graduate students are also funded with scholarships.
So on the financial side, I think they are somewhat better placed than undergraduates. But so much of the work of graduate students involves, in some cases working in laboratories, in some cases doing field work, and in some cases working with human subjects, there may be a slowdown in the research activities for some of them.
We will be looking at ways to ensure that they can continue in that programs and secondly, making sure that they’re not going to time out or anything like this. Graduate research is going to be more complicated in this environment and there are some people who’ve had to travel to do their research, people who had to be working closely with human subjects that won’t now be allowed. They could see possibly having to take a leave for a time.
You know, we’re very concerned about that. We do want them to get through their programs. And we’re also concerned about that from the point of view of international students.
Georgia Straight: Andrew Petter once told me that 20 percent of the student body was international. Do you have any forecast of the percentage of international students going forward in the post-COVID period?
Jon Driver: I would say this is a new landscape for all of us, both the university and for the international students. One of the reasons that we are going completely remote in the fall and one of the reasons that we’re saying to students that even if the restrictions come off, we will stay remote in the fall is that more than 20 percent of our undergraduates are international. And some of them can’t get back to the country. I should say some of them can’t come back to Canada and they may be isolated in their own countries.
So we will obviously continue to get them through their programs by using remote learning. We’re actually encouraging our instructors, again, to use asynchronous techniques. And if they do have in-person activities to ensure that those in-person activities will not occur at some terrible hour of the early morning for our international students.
We actually have more students enrolled in the summer this year than we had last year. For international students, are around about the same percentage as last summer and the numbers of domestic students, of Canadian students, has gone up this summer.
We’re anticipating that in the fall term, we may see a decline in the number of new international students but we are reasonably confident that the international students who are already committed to a degree at SFU will continue to stick with us—because they are already partway through their programs. But it is very much a concern right now for all Canadian universities.
We’re also looking to the federal government to relax some of the regulations for international students to make it easier for them to continue their programs even if they’re not in-person in the country. And also to make it easier for them to get postgraduate work permits even if they’ve had to do part of their program not in Canada.
Georgia Straight: I wonder if there’s any relationship between spikes in unemployment and enrollment in postsecondary education.
Jon Driver: I’ve been at SFU for quite a long time and I’ve certainly seen at least three economic downturns in the time that I’ve been here. And in each of those downturns, I know we were concerned that the student numbers might go down. because of the cost of paying for tuition and other associated costs.
I think our experience generally has been that when unemployment goes up, there is a greater interest in coming back to university and getting an education.
We know that the province is very concerned that education continues. It doesn’t matter whether it’s trades education or professional education or an academic education, that people are able to continue to go to postsecondary.
Something we've always prided ourselves on at SFU is the flexibility of our programs.
Georgia Straight: Is there anything I neglected to ask or any other points you would like to make?
Jon Driver: I will say I've been really impressed by the adaptability of people in these circumstances. And you know, you hear an awful lot these days about mental-health concerns for our students. We know we have to continue to build our mental-health supports.
But they have been really resilient. And it's really been impressive to watch our students adapt to this new environment. We know we've got to keep supporting them.
Of course, all of our services for our students have also gone online. But I've been really impressed by the resilience of the students.
I'm also going to say I've been really impressed by the role that student societies have played. They have really stepped up. They've helped their members financially. They've advocated for them very strongly at the university and also with the provincial government. I think they've done a really great job of representing the concerns of their members.
We've got brand new student leadership for our undergraduate student society at SFU. They've hit the ground running. They've let us know what we need to do. They've been very strong advocates for their members.