Alice Cherestes is one of the many McGill instructors who recently had to rethink the way they approach teaching (Photo: Owen Egan)

On Campus

A semester like no other

In the midst of a global pandemic, the usual playbook for a semester gets tossed aside. COVID-19 forced the University's instructors to rethink how they teach and some of the lessons learned will influence the way McGill courses are taught for years to come.

Story by Allyson Rowley, BA'77

December 2020

Over the summer, Alice Cherestes took an online class to learn more about how to teach an online class.

“We used Zoom, we had discussion boards, there were online pre- and post-lecture readings. It gave me so much insight into what’s happening on both sides — instructors and students,” says Cherestes, a senior faculty lecturer in the Department of Bioresource Engineering, and the director of the Freshman Program for the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Cherestes is hardly a neophyte when it comes to teaching. A past recipient of the top prize for teaching at Macdonald Campus, she is a 2020 winner of the Best Practices and Pedagogical Innovation Award from SALTISE (Supporting Active Learning & Technological Innovation in Studies of Education), an association of Quebec educational institutions.

But, like all McGill instructors, Cherestes was preparing for a semester unlike anything that the University has ever experienced before.

As she got ready for the fall semester, Cherestes needed to make many technical decisions: What software to use, how to record lectures.

But the preparation involved far more than that.

“You need to think about what defines your teaching,” says Cherestes. “What’s your North Star? Then, the question is: How can I provide that in an online environment?”

With a virtual class, Cherestes notes the instructor loses the important visual cues of how students are responding (or not) to a lecture. On the other hand, every student in the class now has a front-row seat. They can also watch and replay recordings on their own time, and they might find it less intimidating to participate in discussions and provide peer feedback.

There is no denying that learning in lockdown can be challenging. “For me, connecting with my students is crucial, so you need a lot of empathy,” says Cherestes. “Everyone comes with a story — and now these stories are behind a screen.” 

A surreal semester

“The whole McGill community has been getting together to work through this,” says Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau, “Our teachers are teaching, our students are learning, and this place is running.”

Fabrice Labeau is McGill’s deputy provost (Student Life and Learning) (Photo: Owen Egan)

Many new measures were quickly put into place, from enhanced cleaning protocols, physical distancing signage, and plexiglass dividers to new software, upgraded servers, and Zoom licenses for all faculty, staff, and students. After a two-week shutdown in the spring, some 2,000 McGill courses were quickly transitioned to remote learning.

A survey sent in July to all McGill students revealed that up to 65 per cent of them planned to be in Montreal for the autumn semester, whether or not they could attend classes in person. “That number was important for us to plan the fall,” says Labeau. “We needed to be ready to welcome them.”

Teaching hubs and study hubs were set up to provide physically distanced spaces on campus that can be booked in advance. In-person student services were made available by appointment. Students have access to increased financial aid, along with mental health supports, remote learning resources, and assistance with international travel. And first-year undergraduates had their room in residence held for them, even if they were not able to physically be there in September. (McGill’s athletic facilities were initially open, with extra cleaning and physical distancing, until Montreal was designated a red zone as of October 8; some recreational activities remained open with advance booking.)

Not all teaching and learning has gone virtual. Some activities in Medicine and Health Sciences, Dentistry, and Music are taking place in person, with enhanced safety measures. Labeau notes there are now plexiglass dividers to separate musicians and added cleanings to take care of all those droplets from wind, brass, and voice classes.

“It’s been quite an interesting challenge — not only on the remote level, but also for the experiences that have to be done in person,” says Labeau. “We’ve had to be pretty creative.” He notes that the costs associated with teaching are in fact higher this year, contrary to the notion that online education is less expensive.

“We are now both a physical and a remote university at the same time,” says Labeau. “The resilience of everyone going through this has been absolutely amazing.”

Safety first

Marisa Albanese thinks back to those two weeks in March when everything shut down.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Albanese, senior director of Student Housing and Hospitality Services. “All we knew is we had to keep students safe and try to adapt.” And make sure that everyone would be fed. 

Albanese’s 300-person team worked day and night. Signage and plexiglass went up, dining areas were reconfigured, staff members redeployed as safety ambassadors. Constant cleaning of high-touch areas became the norm, all rooms became single occupancy only, and the 50 floor fellows transitioned to their new, online-only role. “It’s been incredible to see the level of dedication,” says Albanese. “Everyone’s done a fantastic job.”

There are now about 1,300 students in residence on both campuses, compared to the usual 3,500, with more expected to arrive in the winter term depending on travel restrictions.

What’s it like in the residence halls this fall? “It’s eerily quiet during the day!” Albanese says with a laugh. “They’re all in their rooms, studying online.”

“Zoom is a big part of life”

Aditi Singhal, a second-year psychology student, studies from her apartment located close to McGill’s downtown campus. One of the University’s many international students, she hasn’t been back to India in a year. Her travel plans this summer were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Aditi Singhal, an international student from India, is pursuing her degree in psychology from her apartment located close to McGill’s downtown campus (Photo: Owen Egan)

Singhal’s classes are online, she volunteers online for McGill’s Ambassadors for Campus and Community Engagement program, and she has a part-time job as a peer health ambassador with the Student Wellness Hub — also online. “Zoom is a big part of life now,” she says.

Singhal is a little worried about all that screen time, but there are advantages. “Being a student and a part-time worker, time is something that’s very tricky to manage.” Now, she doesn’t have to travel from building to building across the span of the downtown campus. And she is able to do her job from her bedroom.

Are her classes different now that they are all virtual? “Having lectures recorded and uploaded is really helpful,” says Singhal.

“My general experience is that classes have become more interesting,” she adds. There are more activity-based evaluations and fewer traditional exams. In one of her classes, rather than answering multiple-choice questions, students were tasked with learning how to craft their own questions, which were then graded by their peers. “I find these kinds of engaging activities better for learning,” says Singhal.

She recalls when exams suddenly went online in the spring. “Before the pandemic, we’d sit for three hours and recollect all that we’ve studied and regurgitate it onto paper.” In the new virtual format, memorization questions were replaced with essay-based, open-ended questions to be completed online within a 48-hour timeframe.

This new type of exam actually required more work, says Singhal. “We had to think a lot more and engage in a deeper analysis of things.”

Silver linings?

Laura Winer, the director of McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), says this semester has offered the University and its instructors an unprecedented opportunity to reevaluate the nature of their teaching. “It is actually having some amazing results,” she says, adding she just wishes the circumstances that prompted this massive shift “weren’t all so awful.”

Laura Winer is the director of McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (Photo: Owen Egan)

Winer and her team have been working flat-out since March to support instructors and students in the transition to remote teaching and learning. After the two-week shutdown, the University reopened virtually. In the first two days alone, 1.5-million minutes of learning were delivered to 33,000 students around the world via 2,370 meetings on Zoom.

In addition to its normal programs and services, TLS added 35 new software tools and produced 44 webinars for 3,000 participants. “It’s been a marathon we’ve been running at a sprint pace,” says Winer.

She is quick to acknowledge the dedication, flexibility, and openness of McGill’s teaching and learning community. “Given the circumstances, I can’t imagine how we could have done better,” says Winer, who received this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from SALTISE.

She notes the tremendous amount of creativity that has come into play, as instructors have reconceived their course material. How to teach microbiology? Get your students to work at home on kombucha or sourdough starter. “Instructors are asking themselves: What’s the essence of what I’m teaching? And then, how can I support my students in learning that?”

There’s also been a rethinking of course assessment. Early in the pandemic, McGill’s leadership made the decision to move away from traditional, invigilated final exams, towards different kinds of assessments, some of which included more frequent, lower-stakes, and open-book assessments. This ensures a closer check on the student’s progress, reduces stress levels, and lowers the likelihood of cheating. “This is the right way to be moving to support student learning,” says Winer.

Winer notes that several faculty members have told her they will keep many of their teaching adaptations in place once everyone is back on campus. “This has been the impetus to do what they might have been thinking about for a long time.”

Designs on the future

“Some of us teach these monster courses,” says Frank Ferrie, BEng’78, MEng’80, PhD’86, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “[Hundreds of] students sit in a big auditorium, they can barely see the screen, they might not be able to hear the prof.”

Now these classes are offered on Zoom and the experience is almost one-to-one, Ferrie notes. He can also run multiple demonstrations, which he wouldn’t be able to do in an auditorium. “Of course, the students lack the personal interaction and the group experience,” he says, adding, “there are certain nuances you can’t possibly get on a screen.”

That push-pull between the advantages and disadvantages of remote learning is a running theme in a conversation with Ferrie and his departmental colleagues, Professor David Lowther and Assistant Professor AJung Moon. They oversee an introductory robotics design course, which usually takes place in an engineering lab. One of Ferrie’s graduate students took the initiative to build an impressive software platform — a virtual “lego kit” — which simulates the process. Now, students collaborate with each other online as they learn design skills in a realistic virtual environment.

The downside: It’s a first-year course, so the students have never met each other. “That’s almost more interesting than building these virtual machines,” says Lowther. “How to get students to collaborate when they haven’t physically met each other?”

Moon notes that the teaching assistants have all taken the course in-person and can provide guidance. “It will be interesting to see if this new cohort of students can become friends from this digital experience,” she says.

An upside of the online format: The students can design, build, and test any number of robots, which they could not do in real life. The three professors plan to keep this new tool in place when everyone returns to campus; students will use their computer designs to build and test the physical objects in a real lab.

Another upside: This new virtual learning style prepares students for future careers, where they will work on digital designs and collaborate remotely with colleagues around the world. “We’re now running this course in parallel with the way we would do it in industry,” says Lowther.

Staying positive

“I feel like I’m adapting well to online school,” says Zack Billick, an undergraduate in his third year. Many of his classes now provide students with the material and the deadlines — and let the students organize their own time. That’s fine with him. “When I can make my own schedule, I tend to flourish,” says Billick, who is working toward a double major in political science and Jewish studies, while also teaching himself Hebrew and Spanish.

Billick lives with his parents in Montreal and Facetimes with his friends. Naturally, Zoom and many other apps are a big part of life for students who want to connect and study with each other, while navigating different time zones. “My whole life is on the computer,” says Billick. “I try to exercise and get out of the house.” He has taken up meditating as one way to keep up his mental health.

He also volunteers as a workshop facilitator for the Emerging Leaders Program offered by Campus Life and Engagement. “Definitely, the personal aspect is not there, which is a bit of a downside,” he says of the newly online format. “But Campus Life and Engagement has given us some great resources and training.

“Education is still happening and everyone is trying their best,” says Billick.

A classroom in the woods

Andrew Hendry spent the summer exploring the woods around his cabin in British Columbia as he completely rethought his courses.

A professor of biology and the coordinator for his department’s introductory course, Hendry usually teaches that 600-person class in real life. “Despite the fact these are really big classes, it’s about interacting with the students,” says Hendry, who has won both the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching and the Faculty of Science’s Leo Yaffe Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“It’s about making a physical connection to the materials. So, I would bring a live snake to class. I brought a gorilla skeleton and we compared it to a human skeleton.”

None of his teaching was online before this year. “My starting point was to convey to students the sense I was creating lectures for them personally — to connect them to things that matter to me.”

Hendry spent the summer taking videos as he hiked in the vicinity of his cabin, pointing out some of the noteworthy things in his surroundings – examples of trees that are dead or damaged because of factors related to climate change, for example. In another instance, while Hendry is kayaking, a butterfly lands and lingers on his baseball cap, apparently attracted by its bright colour. Hendry uses the moment to illustrate the notion of ecological and evolutionary traps.

Hendry estimates that each new lecture now takes about 15 hours to prepare, as opposed to perhaps three hours of preparation time per lecture in pre-COVID times.

While he has enjoyed the challenge of completely redesigning his curriculum, Hendry doesn’t mince words about his hopes for the future. “I can’t wait for this to be over.”

Lessons from lockdown

“It’s been very tough, I can’t deny that. But at the same time, we have an incredible community,” says Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs) Christopher Buddle. “We pushed the envelope very quickly.”

Buddle, formerly McGill’s dean of students, took on his new role recently. Presciently, the job was created pre-pandemic to build a more robust profile for online education at McGill and strengthen the mission-critical nature of teaching and learning.

He acknowledges how challenging this year has been, especially for those caring for children and other dependents. “But in many ways, it’s also been exciting for both the learner and the instructor.”

In late September, McGill announced the winter semester will also be held mostly online. Now, senior leadership is looking ahead to the next school year. “There’s a lot to be said for what we’ve learned about remote teaching and learning,” says Buddle. “Going forward, our goal will be to maintain the best innovations that further the positive student experience at McGill.”

As an example, he points to the concept of “flipped classrooms”: Students view the lecture material and do the readings in advance, so class time is freed up for questions, discussion, and peer interaction.

As well, instructors are now recognizing that virtual labs, simulations, recorded lectures, and other forms of remote education can be valuable teaching tools that enhance the learning experience and encourage student feedback.

“[The pandemic] forced all of us to reevaluate the way we approach teaching and learning,” says Buddle. “We had to be willing to experiment. I think we’ve learned some invaluable lessons along the way and I think our courses will be the richer for it.”

Allyson Rowley is an award-winning writer and editor specializing in higher education. She has worked for several universities, including McGill, McMaster, Stanford and the University of Toronto.

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