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Karen Paquette, simulation technologist at Cambrian College in Greater Sudbury, prepares a mannequin for a virtual learning session.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

For years, fashion business students at Seneca College went to a bricks-and-mortar clothing store on the school’s north Toronto campus to learn hands-on about the commercial side of the rag industry. But when COVID-19 forced Seneca to temporarily shutter the store, known as The Boutique, instructors had to find another way to deliver this curriculum.

“Our faculty in this program used this challenge as an opportunity to pivot to e-commerce, and they worked to develop The Boutique’s e-commerce site,” says Kurt Muller, dean for Seneca’s faculty of communication, art and design. “This switch to online has resulted in innovation in the actual course content, with faculty building curriculum that incorporates the process they went through to build and launch the site – from how to choose an e-commerce platform provider to digital marketing.”

Like Seneca, colleges across the country faced numerous pandemic-related challenges as they prepared to welcome students for the fall semester. While virtually all educators from kindergarten to postsecondary had embraced online learning toward the end of the previous school year, the big question for colleges was how they could continue to deliver on their mandate of developing job-ready skills through hands-on training and real-world experience.

The answers came through innovative thinking, the adoption of new technologies and resourcefulness.

“COVID has taught us to be nimble and very flexible,” says Paula Gouveia, vice-president, academic, at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont. “This fall, we’re delivering learning in a hybrid model: Theory is delivered remotely, while critical hands-on learning takes place on campus.”

Cambrian has taken extra steps to help students stay engaged and primed to absorb what they’re learning remotely, Ms. Gouveia says. In its technology programs, for example, the school has introduced two-way video demonstrations where students learn concepts from an instructor-led video, then video-record themselves applying the same concepts.

This allows instructors to provide feedback on each students' performance and helps students better retain the teaching, Ms. Gouveia says.

Bow Valley College in Calgary has adopted a similar approach in some programs. As an example, Misheck Mwaba, vice-president, academic, at Bow Valley, points to the school’s veterinary office assistant program, where students apply at home what they learned online and share videos of these exercises.

“Learners are recording what they’re doing at home – with their own pet or with friends' pets – and then uploading their videos to our online learning platform,” Mr. Mwaba says. “So, the instructor can assess how they’re doing with critical skills like checking the animal’s vital signs.”

To address concerns about the safety of students coming to campus for hands-on lab work, Cambrian has invested in a number of new technologies. This fall, medical radiation technology students are working for the first time with simulation mannequins that allow them to practise the proper positioning of patients for X-rays.

“This is in place of peer-to-peer learning, where students would normally work with another student to position an arm or a leg for an X-ray,” Ms. Gouveia says. “We’ve been using simulation mannequins for quite a while for our dental programs, and now with COVID we’ve increased access to simulation technology.”

New simulation technology has also found its way into the practical nursing curriculum at Okanagan College in Kelowna, B.C.

With face-to-face lab time reduced significantly because of physical-distancing requirements, Okanagan had to figure out how its nursing students could apply their theoretical knowledge in areas such as communication, critical thinking, medication knowledge and gathering patients' medical history.

The solution: simulation software that takes students through interactive case studies that test their knowledge and ability to make the right decisions in scenarios such as a patient showing up with possible COVID-19 symptoms.

“They’re interacting within the software in a way that lets them see what skills they need to perform a certain action and make certain decisions,” says Yvonne Moritz, Okanagan’s associate vice-president, education services, and interim dean for science, technology and health. “Obviously, it’s not the same as hands-on learning, but it’s another layer of practice.”

In some programs at Okanagan, the use of lab kits has allowed students to apply at home what they’re learning online. Those in the aesthetics and nail-technology program have received kits containing equipment and materials that they can use to practise hair and nail-styling techniques on themselves or family members, Ms. Moritz says.

For students in Okanagan’s sustainable construction management technology program, the home lab kit contains everything they need to build a scale model of a single-storey house, including a building plan, wood, a scaled mitre saw and an architectural ruler.

“When you’re used to delivering a face-to-face program and you suddenly have to shift to remote delivery, you really have to think about what resources you can use to bring those in-class and hands-on components to an online environment,” Ms. Moritz says.

In some ways, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of teaching methods, technologies and program content that schools would likely have embraced in the future, Mr. Muller of Seneca says. The fashion school’s introduction of e-commerce into its curriculum, for example, would have happened eventually because the industry has for years been moving much of its business online.

“We’re seeing something similar in the event-planning industry, so this year the students in our event and media production program are learning how to produce and deliver virtual events,” Mr. Muller says. “And in TV broadcasting, our students are producing live broadcasts remotely from their homes as opposed to being in the studio – this reflects what’s happening in the industry because of COVID.”

Many of these coronavirus-driven industry changes will likely become permanent – as will much of the innovations colleges have put in place to respond to the challenges of the pandemic, Mr. Muller says.

“One of the biggest lessons we learned was that we were capable of delivering content and curriculum in ways that we haven’t done before and weren’t even sure we could,” he says. “The creativity and innovation that our faculty has shown through all this has been just amazing.”