With files from Alex Coop and Catherine Morin
What Zhen Zhao envisioned to be a regular visit to his parents in Ottawa has turned into an indefinite stay.
A dental student at New York University, Zhao never expected his one-week visit to evolve into a months-long ordeal. Zhao is not alone, however; he is but one of many who’s been cut off from entering their school grounds.
Once considered to be the U.S.’s epicentre, New York has had 353,000 confirmed cases and nearly 23,000 deaths due to COVID-19 as of May 20. New York University, like other schools all across North America, has transitioned to teaching online for the foreseeable future.
Schools around the world continue to shutter their doors as efforts to flatten the curve proceed. Institutes in Ontario were originally slated to re-open on May 4th, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly pushed back the date as the province suppresses the outbreak, and this week confirmed public schools will remain closed until September. British Columbia schools are set to reopen on June 1st, while Manitoba may not resume regular education programming after Septemeber.
Quebec, the province most heavily affected by COVID-19 in Canada, has reopened elementary schools with strict social distancing rules on May 11, much to the dismay of its residents. Parents have the option of sending their kids to classrooms or continue to have them learn at home. Highschools, colleges and universities won’t physically reopen until August.
Because COVID-19 affects every province differently, no one can reach a consensus on when classrooms will return to normal. In the meantime, students and educators across Canada are having a hard time adapting to online classrooms.
Quiet and studious, Zhao says he enjoyed his teacher’s lectures online. Since he chiefly communicated with his professors through email even before social distancing efforts, not much has changed for him when it came to learning from textbooks.
With that said, dentistry has a rigorous hands-on component. New York University’s dentistry program requires its students to practice in dental clinics during their third and fourth years. Now that campuses are off-limits, it has switched to online instruction videos describing how to approach different cases. Zhao’s concerned that without field experience, he’ll be ill-equipped to handle real patients.
“That [clinical practice] is being completely disregarded,” Zhao laments. “No matter how much you learn online, how many videos you watch, you still have to drill the teeth yourself one day, right? This is definitely not gonna make the cut.”
Students who rely on specialized tools are also in a bind. For example, there are those who work with graphics and design to create intricate models and diagrams, and they need high-performance computers to run applications like the Adobe suite and AutoCAD. Schools provide the necessary hardware in their computer labs, but since the shutdown, many students have been forced to work on their home machines that are inadequate for these demanding workloads.
Christina Baziw, who holds a diploma in game programming from George Brown College and is currently completing her computer science degree at Ryerson University, understands that pain all too well as she watched her classmate wrestle with underpowered hardware.
“We can’t take out computers or rent computers from the school anymore,” says Baziw. “I’m super fortunate to have a good PC, but some people are using [Intel Core] i3s for building video games, it’s rough.”
Baziw’s home computer has an Intel Core i7-8700K processor, 16GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX1080 graphics card. These high-performance components create a smooth workflow but may be beyond the budget of cash-strapped students.
She also mentioned that her classmates with poor internet service have trouble staying connected in group projects over remote meetings, exaggerating the distance between her teammates.
Microsoft corroborated her sentiment. In a recent product briefing, Sherief Ibrahim, general manager of Microsoft modern workplace devices, revealed that after evaluating data from the past eight weeks, 20 per cent of students across Canada do not have adequate access to a proper internet connection or the necessary computing power to complete their work.
In March, Telus reported that home internet usage has gone up by 25 per cent. During major events like government news conferences, its mobile data has seen periodic peaks of 40 per cent increase. General text messages have increased by 30 per cent, while video picture text messages rose by 50 per cent. These factors, combined with sharing bandwidth across multiple devices in the household, could degrade service quality.
Responding to the challenges, telcos and technology companies have risen to help the students in need. Major telcos in Canada have been scrambling to lay down new communication lines to relieve the increased traffic. Additionally, Earlier this month, Telus started to offer high-speed internet to students in British Columbia for roughly $10 a month. Apple and Rogers have also partnered with the Ontario government to supply 21,000 students with Apple iPads and free LTE data.
According to Craig Sorochan, senior public affairs officer of B.C’s Ministry of Education, British Columbia has prepared 5,000 Chromebooks and over 1,000 iPads to loan out to the Nanaimo School District if needed. Similarly, the Vernon school district will be distributing refurbished laptops to students who need them. In the Saanich School District, the local First Nations community is setting up mobile hotspots for some students without the internet.
Deteriorating academic honesty
Students and professors alike are battling to uphold academic integrity. Without proctors supervising the examinees, rampant cheating now dilutes the validity of test scores.
In one email obtained by IT World Canada, a general pathology professor at New York University candidly expressed his disappointment after catching a number of students cheating on a quiz.
“I cannot express how disappointed I am about the amount of cheating on the quiz this week,” wrote the professor who’s been anonymized by the source. “Apparently you seem to think we do not have ways of tracking cheating remotely.
“I am not going to pursue those involved in cheating on this quiz; but I assure you, I will have no hesitation to follow through – bringing any student who cheats on the last exam to the peer review board.”
A wide range of technologies exists to snub cheating. Certain schools use software that monitors background programs running on the students’ devices during exams, while others use locked browsers that prevent an examinee from opening other apps once tests begin. Some schools also complement these measures with remote ID verification, such as requiring the student to take a picture before and after the exam. Even more stringent anti-cheating software records the student on both video and audio throughout the test session.
But tighter rules only create better miscreants. Despite increased enforcement, exploitative students are still trying their luck with using external references during exams. Only the most rigorous anti-cheating software could prevent someone from peeking at paper notes and searching up information on a smartphone.
As professors clamp down on cheating, students are also worried that a dishonest culture would foster a propensity for otherwise honest students to stray in fear of being left behind.
“I know the material well enough that I was comfortable without [cheating],” says Morgan Stockwell, a student taking history courses at the University of Toronto. “But it’s uncomfortable for students to have no idea as to whether the entire class is going to use aids, and then if the class average shoots up to like an 88. If I didn’t use aid and I get a 60, how’s that fair?”
Given the hasty transition to online learning, the implementation of these various technologies swung widely between schools, curriculums, and professors. None of the students interviewed were subjected to strict monitoring rules during their final exams.
The threat of dishonesty has reshaped institutions’ grading policies. Last post-secondary semester saw professors omitting year-end exam scores from the final grade. Sources from George Brown College told the publication it has given students the option to replace their number grade with a simple pass or fail. The University of Toronto and other institutions have also amended their final grade calculations.
“One of the professors just took out the exam entirely because he thought it was a joke to have a take-home exam,” says Stockwell. “Instead, we had a re-weighing of the syllabus that we could all vote on.”
For courses that followed through with a final exam, professors derived the test questions based on their personalized lectures, which made it harder for someone who had not attended the courses to understand.
But certain exams had no supervision at all. According to Daniel Park, a mathematics instructor at the University of Toronto, his students were only required to send a picture of the completed paper exam to him for grading. There was no rigid enforcement of honesty besides a stern warning before the tests.
‘We cannot replace the human connection’
Regardless of how interactive online learning sessions can be, a virtual classroom is no substitute for in-person teaching.
Schools were given a few weeks from the start of mandatory social distancing orders to move their classrooms online. Whereas using learning management systems (LMS) such as D2L and Blackboard was optional before the pandemic, social isolation has rendered them a necessity.
A professor’s proactiveness to adopting them could greatly impact the quality of learning, especially when some educators are onboarding at a laggard pace. Several interviewees pointed out that their unfamiliarity with technology may be to blame.
“Most teachers are good with it [LMS], but some just don’t use it at all,” Baziw told IT World Canada that she’s had professors who consistently uploaded video lectures while others only bothered with assignments and reading materials.
“I think you can tell that professors are having trouble adjusting, some of them may not be the most familiar with the tech,” she says.
“We would often hear echo or feedback during sessions, and it would quickly become distracting,” says Nacy Demes, a student at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “Some professors have had more difficulty adapting to online teaching because they’ve never used videoconferencing apps like Zoom.”
The students’ frustrations revealed the problem with such a sudden change; there just wasn’t enough time for everyone to learn the new tools. Remote conferencing apps that once played an assistive role now supersede regular in-person teaching. The tectonic shift is affecting courses that require immediate feedback, like music, the most.
Joy Reeves is a rotary music teacher for the TDSB who now has to manage her music classes online. At times, her class size can grow up to 60 students. To carry out her classes without distracting noise, she requires her students to mute their microphones. Not only is engagement lowered, but it also reduces opportunities for her to correct her students, a critical component to promote information retention.
“We cannot replicate the human connection,” Reeves emphasized, noting the importance of having in-person classes. “When we speak to each other, when we see each other’s eyes when our bodies resonate with the actual vibrations of somebody’s voice, the natural acoustic sounds that are made face to face.”
Communication between teachers and students is key and equally important is communicating to parents their children’s progress. In Ontario, the Ministry of Education has established guidelines for K-12 educators to speak with parents about accessing course material. Teachers have also been collaborating with each other to consolidate information so they’re easily accessible.
“As we proceed into unprecedented territory, the importance of open lines of communication between parents and education staff is critical,” wrote the Ministry of Education in an email to IT World Canada. “We expect teachers, support workers, and board staff to remain in regular contact with parents during this period, as needed.”
“It varies a bit district by district, but this week we had individual phone calls from at least one teacher (one per child) to ask about technology availability etc., in addition to “wellness checks” (i.e. do you have food in the house, are you ok?),” responded Lorraine Baldwin, a mother from Vancouver, when asked recently about her thoughts on remote learning. “Each teacher will be sending out their direction next week (this is our first week back over spring break) but we’ve already been told it won’t be onerous.”
Response from various governments
As students looked to the educators for strategies to succeed in isolation, the educators looked towards the government for guidance.
The ministries of education from across all provinces reacted swiftly, each outlining granular plans for their cities and the regions within them.
Ontario has passed the Coronavirus Support and Protection act, temporarily suspending student loan payments, prolonging decision timelines, and extending the development charge by-laws guarantees municipalities can use the revenue generated for infrastructure maintenance.
Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities have also established a $25 million relief fund to publicly funded colleges, universities, and indigenous institutions to help smooth out their immediate needs during the pandemic. The Ministry has partnered with eCampus Ontario to provide online exam proctoring on a per-need basis for all publicly funded colleges and universities in Ontario. Furthermore, it has been working with international students holding student Visas to address their issues with the Department of Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRRC).
The efforts to support education stretches from coast to coast. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education has also developed guidelines that focus on the safety and health of its students, as well as provide the services needed by students with special needs. Because parents are now much more involved in their children’s education, British Colombia launched Keep Learning BC, a resource hub for families to find ideas for everyday educational activities. Educators were provided with the enterprise version of Zoom, which has more robust security measures, as well as training on how to use them to effectively engage with students.
Quebec has also reserved 15,000 iPads from Apple, which was made available early this month for any school board that needs them. Some suppliers under contract will make cellphones available to students. Telus is also providing free data connection for these devices until June 30. Similar to B.C., Quebec’s Ministry of Education has also launched an online training program for teachers and professors who need to upgrade their distance education skills. The first course launched on May 4.