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Event summary produced by The Globe and Mail Events team. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

Social distancing measures implemented in March sent postsecondary institutions and students across Canada scrambling to complete their semesters online. Virtual learning will likely continue into the fall so The Globe and Mail hosted a webcast on May 12 to explore the implications for students and educators.

The event, presented in partnership with Athabasca University, covered issues such as the quality of online learning compared to in-person approaches, and how students and educators can best prepare for the fall.

Below the recorded webcast are a few highlights from the discussion:

Speakers included Neil Fassina, president of Athabasca University; Catherine Dunne, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance; Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada; and Jessica Riddell, full professor with the Department of English at Bishop’s University. The discussion was moderated by Joe Friesen, postsecondary reporter with The Globe and Mail.


1) Online learning does not mean learning alone

Neil Fassina, president of Athabasca University, the first university in Canada to specialize in online learning, noted learning online is often thought of as learning in isolation. In fact, high-quality virtual education provides plenty of opportunity for collaboration and communication with peers and educators through social and relationship tools, he said.

2) Students are expecting creativity

Watching a three-hour lecture via webcast is not the same as watching three hours of Netflix, said Catherine Dunne, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. She urged educators to use dynamic approaches – breaking up long lectures and building in interactivity such as short quizzes and opportunity for feedback. She also pointed out equality issues – not all students have the technology and equipment to shift to virtual learning and some are in precarious situations at home. Those challenges will need attention if students are to succeed with online learning.

3) Empathy will be key

Jessica Riddell, full professor in the Department of English at Bishop’s University assured students they’ll be fine in the fall. Those in Grade 12 shouldn’t worry about missing part of their high school curriculum. As an educator, she is planning to work with her students to fill in missing knowledge and ensure students are caught up before embarking on new material. She and her staff are also creating online opportunities to connect, such as virtual study rooms.

4) A gap year might not be a good option

At the moment, students, educators and parents are wondering what will happen in the fall. Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said the situation will differ province-to-province. Some postsecondary institutions will be fully online, while some will use a hybrid of virtual and in-classroom – with appropriate social distancing measures. Students considering a gap year should be mindful that they won’t be able to travel overseas and jobs for students will be scarce so it might not be a great time to defer postsecondary education.

5) Know your learning style

Speakers agreed students might want to reflect on how they learn. Virtual education is often asynchronous, meaning students can set their own pace and schedules. Over the summer they might want to reflect on their learning style, create a quiet space to work, and figure out how much one-on-one interaction and communication they’ll need to succeed. For their part, educators can research approaches to online learning and come prepared with creative ideas to blend asynchronous learning with opportunities to come together as a class in real time.

View the full recording of the webcast above.

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