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Tony Quach, a commerce student at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business says the new skills he’s learning due to the pandemic will have merit for a long time.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

Tony Quach, a 22-year-old commerce student at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business says this is the year for Canadian universities to be innovative with their course offerings because, thanks to the onset of the global pandemic, 2020 has been about experiencing the unknown.

In September, Mr. Quach started taking a course called Applied Small Business, developed as a direct result of the COVID-19 economic impact, but says the skills he’s learning will have merit long after the pandemic passes “not just for the students but for the local Winnipeg community.”

The consulting course teams up students with local small business owners to work together to develop strategies geared specifically to help them weather the pandemic.

“Seeing businesses struggle and the economy being affected, this course was created to help assist those small businesses in our communities,” Mr. Quach explains. “As a student it was a great opportunity to challenge us and change things up and I say that this is the year to be innovative with what courses you offer to students because if it works then it can be continued and if it doesn’t then it can be modified.”

COVID-19 subject matter is being integrated into university curriculums across a variety of disciplines to fulfill the demand from students who say they want to learn from this unique moment in time.

And it’s happening all over the country.

At the University of Victoria, students are looking at how the pandemic has changed domestic duties in its psychology department’s Social Relationships course. At the Ontario College of Arts and Design University, students in visual arts can express their creativity and their feelings about the pandemic in the COVID-19 Responsive Art course. The University of Toronto has added Pandemics and the Law to its course selection.

Mr. Quach says this is the year to be innovative with what courses universities offer students because if it doesn’t work then it can be modified.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

“You have to respond because it’s impacted all of us and that’s the reality we are in and universities offer the chance to reflect and think critically on what’s happening,” says Janice Ristock, provost and vice-president of academics at the University of Manitoba.

For Dr. Ristock, COVID-19 needs to be part of the academic conversation and “you need to shift the subject matter to reflect what the students want to learn,” such as U of M’s course, Anthropology Now: COVID-19, which was created as a direct response to student interest in studying the changes to daily life in a time of crisis.

Student interest was also the catalyst behind, Economics of Pandemics, a course developed by Dr. Hashmat Khan, an economics professor at Carleton University.

“I felt there would be a lot of interest from students in understanding the impact of the pandemic on the economy,” Dr. Khan says, “because it brought the economy to a standstill and it impacted everyone, not just Canadians.”

The majority of the students in this class are economics majors, however, there are also participants from journalism, public policy and engineering programs. The course looks at both the health and economic effects of COVID-19, from vaccine research to the future of the labour market.

Despite his own inclination that this subject would be of interest to students, Dr. Khan wasn’t sure how that interest would translate into enrolment.

When course registration opened, “[it] went from 30 to 60 to 100 to 150 and we finally put a cap at 180, but currently we are at 186 students,” he explains. “So, that says to me there is a lot of demand for understanding these [issues].”

At Dalhousie University in Halifax, the medical school has ramped up its teaching on telehealth and remote medicine for its future physicians to keep in line with what’s happening in medicine as a result of COVID-19, explains Brad Wuetherick, executive director at Dalhousie’s Centre for Learning and Teaching.

“What the medical school is doing is taking this opportunity and exploring how we might use this moment to take a leap ahead,” he says. “[Instructors] are spending time on how we see the future of telehealth and the idea of remote medicine.”

Mr. Wuetherick adds that remote medicine and telehealth were part of the curriculum prior to the pandemic as these tools were used to serve isolated or distant communities, but the demand is there from today’s medical students to make it a much larger discussion as more physicians have adopted these practices because of COVID-19.

At Dalhousie’s International Development Studies department, there’s now a simulation-based course called Pandemic! The Class, based on the board game by the same name, which teaches students pandemic management and how to avoid future global epidemics.

“We’re using this moment in time to shift not only how we teach, but what we teach,” Mr. Wuetherick says.

Back at the University of Manitoba, Mr. Quach is more than a month into his business class and his last semester of his degree, which he will finish in December. He says the pandemic has created new ways of thinking about small business alongside relationships with local businesspeople as the course allows students to gain real consulting experience and he is grateful this opportunity came before he graduates.

“This course has given me new skills and there is so much more to be learned especially from the consulting aspect,” he says. “I would encourage other universities if they haven’t already ... to come up with a course that offers students soft skills that benefit the community in some way, shape or form, and this is the time to do it.”