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Grant Hall at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario on Nov. 3.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Many of Canada’s largest universities say they will offer more on-campus activities and in-person lectures next term, as they come under pressure from students eager for a return to something resembling prepandemic campus life.

But it’s a balancing act. The schools – which include the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, McMaster, Queen’s and Western – must weigh the benefits of live lectures against possible health risks. They’re still awaiting details on the implications of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19. And they’re hearing from students and faculty who have come to appreciate the convenience of online education.

At McMaster, 90 per cent of instruction will be in person in the upcoming winter term, up from about 55 per cent of course components this fall. At UBC, 96.5 per cent of courses will have an in-person component, an increase from 93 per cent over the fall term. At U of T, more than 80 per cent of the university’s 12,500 courses will be in person next term, compared with 55 per cent in the fall.

Still, some students whose classes remain online are complaining that they aren’t getting what they paid for.

At the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the graduate teaching program at U of T, students in the master’s program say they’ve been told their classes will be online again next term.

Kristin Campbell, a first-year student, said she was willing to accept online classes in the fall, but expected to have more courses taught in person by the winter term. At the moment, her class schedule consists of six hours a day of Zoom.

“Teaching is a very sociable profession. We need to be engaging with each other in a classroom setting and we need to be engaging with our instructors,” Ms. Campbell said.

A U of T spokesperson said OISE expects to increase its proportion of in-person teaching gradually, in part because students on practicums are exposed to schoolchildren, many of whom are not yet vaccinated.

Students at Ottawa’s Carleton University have launched a petition to accelerate the return to campus. The petition argues that Carleton is “stuck in time” and should follow other Ontario universities in offering more classes in person.

In a statement, Carleton spokesperson Steven Reid said the university is staying true to its plan for a safe and gradual return to campus and has increased the number of in-person classes in winter, compared to the fall term. He did not specify the extent of the increase.

These debates about how education ought to be delivered are likely to continue as the pandemic evolves and eventually recedes. Christopher Buddle, associate provost at McGill University, is leading an academic working group that is looking at how the university can apply what it has learned during the pandemic era.

Prof. Buddle said students and faculty are at a point now where they’re more willing to consider whether certain aspects of education are necessarily better in person than online. For instance: Should classes be synchronous, with everyone attending at the same time, whether in-person or online, or asynchronous, with students viewing recorded lectures whenever they want to? And what about holding classes in 600-seat lecture theatres? Such large gatherings might no longer be considered as effective as a collection of online modules and smaller, in-person seminars, Prof. Buddle said.

“One key point that we continually go back to is that there is a real value to in-person teaching and learning. The question is, what elements are best done in person?” Prof. Buddle added.

Many instructors are embracing the idea of a “flipped classroom,” where lectures or concepts are delivered via online video or text, and in-person class time is devoted to group activity or in-depth discussion.

Some students have found that the online experience has advantages. For those working part-time or living far from campus, taped lectures have allowed them to learn without scheduling conflicts or long commutes.

A survey of undergraduate students at McGill in May, 2020, showed that 80 per cent appreciated the flexible hours for learning and coursework.

At York University, where most students commute and few live near campus, many classes that began the year online will be held in person in the new year. Nearly 10,000 students have signed a petition asking for the right to remain online, citing safety and scheduling concerns if they’re forced back to campus.

Frances Woolley, a professor of economics at Carleton University, said what students lose online is the opportunity to benefit from one another – the networking, mentoring and shared experiences that happen in and out of class. Online works for people with social capital and a strong support network, she said. For those who lack such support, navigating university courses is a challenge.

There’s no question that having at least some in-person learning is a better model, Prof. Woolley said. But some things she adopted in the pandemic she won’t change: Meeting briefly with students on Zoom, for example, or providing them with short videos that explain key concepts.

“I suspect we’re going to have a permanent change in the way we deliver education. But there are elements of the in-person experience that are extremely difficult to reproduce online,” she said.

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