Two weeks. That’s all the time McGill staff, administrators and professors had to transition some 2,000 courses to remote learning in order to complete the Winter semester.
When the Quebec government announced the province-wide shutdown in mid-March, McGill had two weeks, during which classes were suspended, to prepare for the new physical distancing reality. By March 30, the courses were up and running remotely.
This victory marked an unprecedented moment in McGill history, made possible by the collaboration and creativity of a community determined to rise to the challenge of a generation-defining health crisis that has hit pause on life as we knew it.
With remote delivery of courses now slated to continue for the Fall 2020 term, last semester’s experience will provide a strong basis to ensure that students are able to pursue their programs seamlessly – from anywhere in the world.
Adapting to the ‘new normal’
“Over the past weeks, I’ve been continually impressed with how everyone has adapted to the ever-shifting demands of the ‘new normal’ of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Chris Buddle, Associate Provost of Teaching and Academic Programs. “One of our guiding principles throughout all of this has been flexibility and creativity, without reducing the quality of academic content.”
Laura Winer, Director of Teaching and Learning Services, played a key role in the transition, working closely with her colleagues to ensure students received the most positive and engaging learning experience possible in spite of the short timeframe to deliver.
Winer and her team quickly got to work to ramp up the University’s technology capacity, which included securing 2,200 Zoom licences at breakneck speed so live classes could be delivered remotely.
At the same time, they created a flexible framework to guide instructors on things like final assessments, grading, and dealing with the constraints of different time zones – a framework that instructors could then adapt to their specific courses and needs.
“McGill is so diverse, we couldn’t have a one-size-fits-all response,” Winer says. “It’s been a big change for everyone to adapt to the new reality. But students seem to really appreciate the University stepping up […] so they could finish their term.”
A collaborative effort
Buddle and Winer both agree that collaboration between all McGill units— Student Affairs offices, Enrolment Services, the Study Abroad Office, Student Services, IT Services and many more—was instrumental in preparing the remote-learning transition.
“The size and scale of this is unprecedented,” notes Buddle. “It really is a heartening story, how the University came together in a time of crisis.”
And the collaborative effort extended beyond McGill’s campuses. Universities across Canada and around the globe were in constant communication, sharing ideas and solutions, Winer notes.
“We had regular meetings with colleagues across the country, and I also had a conversation with a Hong Kong university as they’d been completely remote since the fall because of political demonstrations,” she says. “Everyone was talking to everyone else and sharing best practices. It was striking to see how generous people were in sharing resources.”
While most tech-savvy students adapted quickly to the remote-learning format, some McGill professors needed a little guidance to master the new virtual tools.
In the Faculty of Law, Professor Sébastien Jodoin, adept at new technologies, led virtual workshops to help colleagues gain know-how and confidence in using the new tools. “I’m pleased to have been able to support them during this period of quick transition,” Jodoin says. “It made me feel like I was making a small contribution to managing the crisis.”
Migrating from the classroom to Zoom
Nikolas Provatas, a Professor in the Department of Physics, is no stranger to using technology to supplement his teaching. For the past 10 years, he’s been using online tools to share pre-recorded lectures, quizzes, weekly assignments and post-lecture recordings. So he welcomed the opportunity to transition to an exclusively online learning format.
“I’ve always wanted to go that route, so the COVID-19 crisis kind of forced the issue,” he says. “We’ve continued just fine with Zoom, in fact even better. With close to 600 people in my class, it’s actually worked much better for me than in-class tutorials in terms of saving time and I won’t be going back.”
With such a large class size, Provatas had to get creative to keep his students engaged in a remote environment. He decided to try an experiment in his graduate class PHYS 657 (Classical Condensed Matter Physics) and divide the class into small “break-out groups” of two or three students within Zoom, assigning a leader to each group to report back on the outcomes of collaborative work sessions. The idea worked well. So well, in fact, that he will be using this approach to mentor his 600-student undergraduate class during problem-solving tutorials next cycle.
Embracing the positives
For Provatas, this unprecedented experiment in remote learning has provided some valuable lessons and opportunities, which he hopes students can embrace moving forward.
“I would encourage students to embrace this challenge. It’s an opportunity for seamless learning and they can maybe even make more efficient use of their time,” he says. “If we can get this rock solid, it may be an even better way to learn.”
Provatas admits that there’s still a lot to be said for the personal experience and “seeing the body language and expressions on students’ faces.” So he would ask everyone in his class to turn on their cameras from time to time, to maintain a sense of social connection.
“Lots of people were in their PJs … so I told them to put a shirt on the next time,” he laughs. “But everyone was all smiles, I’d bring my parakeet along. The crisis has helped us form a family of sorts.”
Looking forward to Fall
In preparation for the Fall term, the University’s academic leadership and teaching staff are working tirelessly to develop courses that will provide all students—whether they live in Montreal or on the other side of the world—with “both academic rigour and the necessary flexibility,” Buddle says.
The University is also developing ways to remotely deliver activities such as small classroom-based seminars, conferences, tutorials, workshops, or reading groups.
“We will be listening to feedback and working to ensure everyone’s voices are heard,” Buddle says.
Justin Dupuis and Sarah Huzarski contributed to this article