UNBC and College of New Caledonia students began returning to classes this week, but for many it won't mean a return to campus as courses move online.
UNBC interim president Geoffrey Payne said the university and its faculty have been preparing for the Fall 2020 semester for months, to be ready to make the transition to a mostly-online learning model.
"Obviously the fall 2020 term is very unique and different," Payne said. "Our staff has been fantastic. Back in March when we made the rapid switch in four days, that was really challenging for the faculty. Some courses just don't translate that way."
In order to make the transition to distance learning easier for the 2020-21 year, UNBC hired two instructional designers and added other resources to help faculty transition their courses to an online model, he said.
Some courses which can't be done remotely will still be offered in person on campus, with social distancing measures in place, he said. In addition, resources like labs, the library, book store, cafeteria, student residences, registrar's office, etc. will be open and available to students.
More than 3,300 students have enrolled in courses at the university for the fall term, he said.
"That's about flat compared to last year. (But) we're up from where we were three years ago," Payne said. "Nobody really knew what to expect. The summer term was very well attended."
While things will be different for students and staff on and off campus, the university intends to keep offering a quality learning and research environment for students and faculty, he said. In addition, UNBC is trying to make sure it is communicating the changes so everyone knows what to expect.
"Our orientation is normally quite a big event. This year we had an online orientation," Payne said. "This week I had a Zoom call with 200 students. That was very interesting. We've held a number of information sessions."
Payne said he expects the primarily-online model to continue through the fall 2020 and winter 2021 semesters.
"Where I see it going is anybody's guess. We have to see what is happening provincially, nationally and internationally," Payne said. "It's a wait-and-see."
College of New Caledonia vice-president academic Chad Thompson said the college, which offers a large number of trades and health sciences programs, will continue to have a moderate number of students physically on campus.
For some of the trades programs up to "80 per cent of the time is spent in a shop," he said.
However, courses and classroom work which can be offered online are being done remotely, he said. Schedules for in-person classes have been spread out over the day, to reduce the number of people on campus at any given time.
"This is most certainly not a normal year. Certainly there is fewer students on campus than we normally see," Thompson said. "All of the face-to-face teaching is being done with expanded safety precautions. We've actually had to put in a bunch of extra lab session, so they can be done socially distant."
The college is requesting, but not requiring, students to wear masks while on campus, he said.
"I think students have been very understanding. Most of the students I've seen are wearing masks. They've been observing social distancing," Thompson said. "I think most students understand that this is necessary to keep everyone safe and healthy."
The college is committing to continue with its current mixed-delivery model for at least the current term, to give students and staff some certainty about what to expect, Thompson said.
Final enrolment numbers for the fall semester haven't been tabulated yet, he said, because some programs won't start until later in the year.
"Although we continue to think of September as the beginning of the academic year, CNC has really been running year-round for the last four years," Thompson said. "For some of our programs, they're already in week five. Some programs won't start until October."
Already the college is seeing fewer international students, he said. That is something happening at institutions around the country and fewer people are travelling in the midst of a global pandemic. On the other hand, student demand for programs in the health science fields is up from last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the world, Thompson said, and there is a need for people with the kinds of skills the college can offer.
"This really is the time when you may want to be pursuing post-secondary education," Thompson said. "The people who have been hardest hit are those whose jobs require less education."
STUDENTS FACING CHALLENGES
The changes mean new challenges for university students, Northern Undergraduate Student Society president Jingyu Chen said in an email.
"First of all, internet reliability is an issue for students who live and study in rural communities," he said. "Especially for synchronous classes, having high-quality internet is absolutely essential."
Both students and the faculty have been forced to learn how to manage online learning rapidly, Chen said. Some professors pre-recorded lectures and uploaded them, while others held live online lectures.
"Both have their pros and cons," Chen said.
While pre-recorded lectures allow students to pause, go back or replay sections, they lack the interaction and ability to ask questions that a live lecture offers, he said.
"I think there is definitely opportunity to improve students' online learning experience, but without feedback from students, it is hard to tell which area is lacking," he said. "I think we need to send a survey to the student body by the end of September to collect those feedbacks."
Another challenge is not every student has a home situation that is conducive to taking online lectures and studying, he said. And the normal social aspect of attending university is largely being lost.
That connection is especially important for new students, who don't have the pre-existing relationships and experience with university-level courses.
"New students have less opportunity to participate in activities/events that the university used to organize pre-COVID. They have to adjust to the new environment again when they come back while having a busy schedule for upper-level classes," Chen said. "Also, for new students that have science/engineering majors, without the hands-on experience in lab classes, they may not retain/absorb the same amount of knowledge/skills that they would have in a normal school year."
The UNBC Wellness Centre is offering counselling services for UNBC students, and in April the student society began offering an Empower Me program in partnership with Studentcare as part of the student health plan.
"(Our) Student Life Department has created a student event list online over the summer for new and returning students to interact with their peers and UNBC communities," he said. "At NUGSS, we are organizing our annual Club Days in a virtual format through our Facebook page."
College of New Caledonia Students' Union membership outreach coordinator Damon Robinson identified many of the same issues Chen did for students at the college.
"Attending your first semester already has its challenges, as it is generally already a big step in life. With the complications of having to do your studies online, it definitely puts some extra challenges on our students' plates," Robinson said. "Despite the very impressive switch to online instruction from the college, many students were faced with the challenges that come with attending courses online. Access to the proper technology was a barrier and the lack of face-to-face instruction were common issues that our students faced."
The students union is working to help students connect through the CNCSU app. The app allows students to introduce themselves, join clubs and access support systems like the Here2Talk service launched by the B.C. government earlier this year, he said.
"It is our hope that students who are feeling anxious or stressed reach out and it is one of our objectives to build awareness around it," Robinson said. "One of the biggest challenges for students, as well as us, is giving our members the ability to interact with each other. Having a positive student life here at CNC is crucial to the mental health of our members, and it is one of our goals to help facilitate that if possible."