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Students headed back to college and university already know they’ll be spending most of their time online because of COVID-19. But for some, video conferencing won’t be able to teach them all they need to know to be a nurse, ceramics maker, theatre professional, helicopter-engine repairer or carpenter, or a wide range of hands-on skills.

“At some point, if you’re teaching carpentry, you have to hammer in a nail,” said James Rout, associate vice-president of education support and innovation at the B.C. Institute of Technology. “When it gets down to it, you have to train your fingers.”

Postsecondary institutions across the country offering programs for everything from construction trades to health care specialties are having to figure out how to deliver them. That means virtual classrooms and efforts to limit in-person class sizes, and the use of innovative tools such as holograms and 3-D models.

In British Columbia, BCIT has the highest number of hands-on courses, serving 50,000 students in 300 programs. Instructors and administrators have had to work out how much time students need to be physically present in labs or workshops to use specialized equipment and practise the skills for their courses, as well as what alternatives can be used.

The institute has developed unique teaching tools that allow students to study helicopter engines through holograms or treat virtual patients with a variety of health problems. The augmented-reality tools reduce the time students have to be in a classroom, workshop or clinic.

The nursing department had already developed 19 types of cases for students to practise on through its program called Virtual Pulse, ranging from a child rescued from a burning house to a man who’d had a stroke.

“With COVID, it’s been really valuable that we have this,” said Kathy Kennedy, the college’s associate dean of specialty nursing.

In Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s culinary instructors are using Microsoft Teams and YouTube to teach the intricacies of specialties such as cake decorating, and pipe trades instructors are incorporating 3-D modelling into teaching.

“Students love it and want to see more of it,” said Susan Mainella, a spokesperson for the college.

Paul Kingsmith, senior communications specialist at Lethbridge College, said all of its trades programs, including agriculture and heavy equipment technician, automotive service technician and wind turbine technician, will have on-campus elements.

But virtual classrooms are also taking the place of some in-person labs. For example, Mr. Kingsmith said the college’s early childhood education program uses a video system that allows students to simulate the experience of observing children at play, rather than actually going to preschools or daycares.

At Seneca College’s Markham campus just outside Toronto, students in the School of Creative Arts & Animation studying illustration are working in a video-conference group, sketching a live model in real time. Spokeswoman Caroline Grech said after much testing, including rehearsals with the model, live drawing sessions began this summer with the model posing while responding to the professor’s instructions.

For students taking Seneca’s basic electricity course, the practical lab component was replicated with an online 3-D modelling program that runs in a web browser. With a few modifications made to the lab work, students can simulate circuit-building from their home computers and test functionality without using a physical connection to a voltage source.

At Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design, faculty are redesigning fall courses so there will be a blend of about 70-per-cent online and 30-per-cent on-site work, says Trish Kelly, vice-president for academic.

The university is looking at some basic physical rearrangements to accommodate its local students, as well as the roughly 25 per cent who are from abroad. The school is working out agreements with private art or industrial design studios in the city and around the world, where students can go in to use equipment when needed without a whole class crowding into one small area.

Emily Carr also tried out new ideas already for its summer courses, such as running do-it-yourself printmaking courses that had students use materials they could source from home. It turned out to be a huge success.

“We were just trying to stabilize summer enrolment, but it went up 50 per cent,” Ms. Kelly said.

Langara College, also in Vancouver, has a creative design department that offers courses in fine arts, design, photography and theatre, as well as a large nursing department. Both had to go through a lot of rethinking about how to offer those programs.

Like BCIT and Emily Carr, the college is front-loading theory-type courses than can be conducted online to the fall session, in the hopes that courses that rely on physical interaction or practice – theatre, for example – can run in the spring.

“Nursing is doing as much as it can by Zoom,” said Julie Longo, the college’s arts dean, who is part of the team planning the fall changes. “But they’re obliged to do psychomotor skills, do subcutaneous injections.”

That will mean working with both faculty and the college’s health and safety officer to make sure maximum safety precautions are in effect. So far, the protocols for the nursing department run to 18 pages, detailing everything from equipment cleaning to required spacing between students.

Ms. Longo and Ms. Kelly said it’s been encouraging to watch instructors look at what students need to learn in a course and figure out new ways to get there.

“This is a bit of a game-changing moment for education,” said Ms. Kelly.

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