March 16 marks exactly one year since York closed its doors and moved classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, just how long the school would remain online was unknown. The frontier of online education was completely alien, and it was uncertain what changes needed to be made. Exactly a year later, faculty reflect on how the online formats have changed the learning environment.
Dr. Idil Boran, an associate professor in the department of philosophy, explains that the challenges of online learning are more complex than immediate assumptions, impacting both students and teachers.
“There is much emphasis put on the trade-off resulting from not having face-to-face classroom interaction. The reality is more complex. There are hidden challenges that cannot be reduced to the trade-offs of foregoing face-to-face meetings. For example, students and teachers experience heightened anxiety and worries resulting from a multiplicity of factors,” says Boran.
“Teachers must be extremely supportive, understanding, and compassionate. At the same time, they also need support, understanding, and compassion. There is an equilibrium to maintain at all times, and it is fragile.”
Dr. Elaina Hyde of the department of physics & astronomy highlights the “inequality issue” that stems from an all online approach. “Students with limited data or less internet access have a stronger disadvantage in these kinds of courses and it is hard to accommodate with no in-person option.”
Many professors have reiterated that since the beginning, adapting teaching strategies has also been difficult.
Hyde reflects on how this task needed to be surmounted from some of the very first classes.
“As a relatively new professor here at York, I was just starting my first classes when we went into lockdown. One of the first things that I changed was to move the exams and exercises into an online format,” she says. “The in-person games that I used to play in class have been the biggest challenge to adapt. When you are in a classroom together it is much easier to pass around secret game instructions, and of course to do interactive demos.”
As time goes by — a year, to be exact — this task has only gotten harder.
“I think it has been difficult to think of strategies to engage students during online teaching,” says Dr. Rebecca Bassett-Gunter, an assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Sciences. “It is hard to keep things interesting and engaging when we are all sitting alone looking at a screen.”
“The biggest challenge I have seen is that there are simply not enough hours in the day, or night, to run the same experiences that I saw in my first few months at York. The general workload has gone up by probably a factor of three or four, and I think that many, including our students, are starting to feel the exhaustion,” Hyde adds.
“I think that the challenging circumstances invited some creativity that might actually help improve some aspects of teaching in the future.”
Some of York’s more specialized institutions have had to adapt in unique ways over the course of this year.
“I think that the challenging circumstances invited some creativity that might actually help improve some aspects of teaching in the future,” says Bassett-Gunter.
Boran is the lead researcher of the Synergies of Planetary Health Research Initiative & Lab, which is housed at the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research. The initiative is international and transdisciplinary, and its vision is to integrate perspective and evidence-based research in the hopes of creating solutions to global, environmental, and social problems.
“At the onset of the pandemic, the research team had been working on the inaugural workshop to take place in late March. The workshop had to be cancelled, followed by a painful and stressful process of adjusting to the new circumstances. Research work had to be temporarily postponed to complete the winter term courses,” says Boran.
A new training lab called the Synergies Lab was launched in February 2021 through this initiative. According to Boran, the lab was created to facilitate “training opportunities for student and postdoctoral researchers through hands-on research and outreach projects,” and is uniquely suited to the factors created by the pandemic.
“The circumstances of the pandemic created a need for a participatory and co-creative environment for student engagement and experiential learning. This was an impetus for launching the lab. It is gratifying to see student enthusiasm for projects that support an integrative approach to environmental and social justice,” says Boran.
Similarly, York’s Allen I. Carswell Observatory had to roll with the pandemic’s punches, taking advantage of many online resources.
“Fortunately at the Allan I Carswell Observatory we were able to bring our weekly public tours online. We now do a weekly Wednesday live broadcast on our YouTube channel,” says Hyde, who provides technical leadership for the observatory. “This has turned out to be an excellent way to showcase the expertise and abilities of our observatory members, as well as provide interesting astronomy content. The Wednesday night YouTube program is so popular we will certainly continue even if public viewing in-person does become available.”
As a whole, the professors can also cite unexpected benefits that they have come away with from a year online.
“I think in reflecting on the challenges of the past year, I have often felt there was a bit of irony in the fact that in many ways I felt part of a community as much or more so than during a typical year,” says Bassett-Gunter.
“I think the fact that so many of us were experiencing similar challenges allowed us to share a common bond and brought out aspects of shared empathy and understanding. Even though we were online, I had many personal and meaningful conversations with students and colleagues.”
Hyde adds that teamwork amongst the university has been vital. “No one could do it by themselves, but by supporting each other and helping when we can, a lot of problems have been solved this last year that first looked insurmountable,” she says.
Boran says the year has been an exercise in enduring compassion — between faculty, students, and oneself.
“This year, my awareness of circumstantial hardship has been heightened. When students approach me with a problem they can’t resolve, and if I have the capacity or knowledge to find a solution, it is an exceptionally good feeling to be able to help,” Boran says.
“As teachers, we also had to learn to be compassionate to ourselves, so we can radiate it toward others. Compassion is about understanding pain and suffering. It is about commitment to look for alleviating pain and suffering. This never stops being work in progress, but the commitment is what makes a difference.”