On March 16, the University of British Columbia moved all of its classes online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, all inbound and outbound student study programs were cancelled.
It occurred just as students were getting ready for their final exams and the end of the school year in April.
Now, online instruction will be extended through the summer and likely beyond that, according to Simon Bates, UBC's associate provost, teaching and learning.
"We’ve learned that provision of learning content is relatively easy—online lectures and so on," Bates told the Straight. "But we also know that interaction and developing a sense of community really matters in the online space, so that requires a careful balance of synchronous and self-paced or asynchronous activities."
This week, Premier John Horgan said that a ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people will remain in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Straight asked Bates seven questions in connection with UBC's transition to online learning. Read his answers below:
Georgia Straight: What was your reaction on hearing news that there would be no classroom instruction as a result of the pandemic?
Simon Bates: We had some advance warning, having been following the PHO [provincial health officer's] guidance and messaging for a couple of weeks previously. We started conversations with faculty leadership early in March and stood up the keepteaching.ubc.ca website—which has expanded and developed into a comprehensive resource for our pivot to online emergency instruction.
Georgia Straight: What was involved in transforming to more online instruction?
Simon Bates: Many moving parts to consider. From a technology perspective, we already had a solid tools base to support blended and online learning, with our core learning applications hosted in Canadian cloud installations, which meant they could scale to meet increased demand relatively easily. We put a lot of effort into supporting faculty in the rapid pivot to online instruction; our central and faculty-based learning support units did a fantastic job, working long hours over that period in mid-March to provide a mixture of pedagogical and technical support to faculty to facilitate instructional continuity.
Georgia Straight: How did the university bring faculty and teaching assistants up to speed to ensure this could occur?
Simon Bates: Well, it was a challenge because it was so rapid a shift. No one expected to end the semester in this way back in January. It was really all about making sure everyone in our community was informed as quickly as possible of the transition to online and that we provided faculty with the supports they needed to make it work.
Georgia Straight: How did the university ensure best practices were communicated across faculties and schools?
Simon Bates: Well, that is still a work in progress as we plan for summer courses [starting on May 11]. Faculties are the experts in their subject domains, so their peer-to-peer networks were invaluable components in this and we simply looked to ways we could support that, such as articulating some principles about what effective online instruction looks like, but not to straight-jacket them, because the requirements of different disciplines means it is never a one-size-fits all.
Georgia Straight: What have you learned through this process?
Simon Bates: We are planning for a longer time horizon, a sort of ‘extended interim period’ of online instruction through the summer and likely beyond that. We’ve learned that provision of learning content is relatively easy—online lectures and so on. But we also know that interaction and developing a sense of community really matters in the online space, so that requires a careful balance of synchronous and self-paced or asynchronous activities. Assessments needed rethinking as well, particularly high-stakes exams, and our faculty members made a variety of adjustments to support student learning. We also learned to be as flexible as possible to the challenging and disruptive circumstances that our students found themselves in; granting late withdrawal options or pass/fail options up to and including the time that grades were released was an example of that.
Georgia Straight: Which areas were easiest and which were most challenging to move into the digital sphere?
Simon Bates: Traditional lecture slots were probably easiest. Discussion, seminar tutorials also. Harder were things like labs—with a mid-semester pivot and no time to plan. Harder yet were the vast array of clinical and other placement activities—particularly in health disciplines and education where the environments for placements were themselves massively affected by the safety measures mandated by the PHO (e.g. clinics, hospitals, schools, et cetera). These disciplines have done an amazing job working with both clinical partners and regulatory bodies to ensure students could for the most part complete their placements where it was a requirement for graduation, or to defer them. We’re continuing to look at these areas for the summer and the fall and think about ways we can redesign, virtualize, and reconceptualize these opportunities.
Georgia Straight: What are the longer-term changes that we’ll see at UBC as a result of the pandemic after it’s over?
Simon Bates: Well, probably too early to say for sure at present. But it is clear that our new normal could be changed in significant ways, given the experiences of the past few and likely coming months. I think we probably will see a greater uptake of various tools and technologies to support blended learning—the mix of f2f [face-to-face] and online activities—in the long run.