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Dalhousie University faculty raise concerns over shift to online teaching

N.S. university professors to spend summer preparing for online teaching
Concerns raised by members of the Dalhousie University faculty union over switch to online learning for the Fall 2020 term.

University campuses across Canada will look very different this September.

Instead of thousands of students flooding post-secondary institutions to partake in classes and courses, education will be delivered online through platforms that are still being developed.

Although this makes sense as a public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA) said the change is a massive undertaking for instructors and professors.

They will have to spend the next few months preparing for the drastic shift in pedagogy.

“When are folks going to find the time to do the revamping of the curriculum and implementing the online platform?” Dave Westwood said, a kinesiology professor and DFA president.

“Many of us haven’t been trained because previously we hadn’t been doing online, so there’s a steep learning curve.”

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READ MORE: Dalhousie international students call for reduced tuition after coronavirus moves classes online

The union representing faculty members sent a letter to Dalhousie president, Dr. Deep Saini, stating the online switch has, “placed a tremendous burden of work and additional responsibility on DFA Members at a time when they are already stretched to the maximum.”

In response, Dalhousie University said an academic team is working with faculty to determine the challenges and address them.

“Our deans and department heads are also working with faculty and staff to consider the implications online teaching will have and how best we deliver our academic mission for the fall,” Lindsay Dowling-Savelle, a communications advisor with Dalhousie, wrote in an email statement.

Nova Scotia teachers adapting to at-home learning
Nova Scotia teachers adapting to at-home learning

Dowling said while the majority of classes will be delivered online, some courses simply can’t be offered through that medium due to their nature.

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“Programs like medicine, dentistry, select health professions and agriculture fall into these categories. We will need to ensure that any in-person offerings can be provided safely in adherence to health protocols,” Dowling wrote.

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Westwood said the importance of research is a crucial part of the workload many professors and instructors carry.

As an example, he points to the recent announcement of Dalhousie researchers leading the first clinical trials for a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

READ MORE: Health Canada approves first clinical trial for possible coronavirus vaccine

“Finding the time to juggle the research commitments which are hugely important at this time and the teaching obligations, that’s really the challenge we hear most from our members. We’re actually getting quite concerned about stress and mental health,” Westwood said.

Westwood said some instructors teach up to eight different courses over the span of one academic year and adapting a large course load to an online platform will come with a great cost in time.

As pandemic progresses, Maritime universities plan for all possibilities next semester
As pandemic progresses, Maritime universities plan for all possibilities next semester

Dowling said an academic team is working through the impacts of changes to program delivery on a course by course bases and a more detailed plan is expected in June.

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While many professors welcome the opportunity to adapt to the necessary challenges during the pandemic, it’s not without recognition that it will impact other realms of professional responsibility.

“It does put the onus on the professor to make sure that we’re delivering the highest-quality learning,” Kathleen Kevany said, an associate professor with the department of business and social sciences.

“I think all of us want to ensure that our work isn’t undermined in other parts of our mandate, teaching is only one part of the many functions we fill.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus is changing how university works. What does the future hold for students?

Westwood said he empathizes with students who will be missing the on-campus and in-person university experience this fall but he said the quality of education students receive won’t be compromised by moving online.

“That’s why it’s going to be so much work, they’re going to make sure that what they do is the right thing for the students,” he said.