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Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto and AstraZeneca Professor of Organic Chemistry. He has received funding and research support from AstraZeneca.

Toronto is recognized as one of the most diverse cities in the world. That message is preached by our politicians and civic leaders and we live it every day as we walk the streets and interact with our fellow citizens.

More than ever, universities are working hard to have that diversity reflected in our classrooms. Progress is slow, sometimes very slow.

Oddly the world of virtual learning is revealing diversity that would otherwise be more or less invisible to someone standing at the front of a classroom giving a lecture to a mass of smiling, sleepy or confused faces. In spite of the sterile nature of remote learning, some experiences leave me hopeful that at least from the teaching side, the online world can be eye-opening. I can only hope it is equally true for those on the learning side of the equation.

I swear in citizens on a regular basis in citizenship ceremonies and have often asked about their country of origin when we pose for pictures. The roster says that 30 to 40 countries are represented in a typical ceremony of 125 people, and I am keen to learn the many and diverse reasons they have chosen Canada. Our citizens originate from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and most places in between.

What about our students? In fact, I have no way of knowing. Faces reveal nothing and everyone is trying to fit in, so I have no idea if they are citizens or international students. When they come to my office, they might elect to share that information, but I would rarely ask.

This year, given the virus and the large size of my class, the learning environment dramatically changed. Teaching in a virtual classroom to 150 students does not bring on warm fuzzy feelings compared to a live audience of active noisy learners that I try to quiet with pictures of science and scientists from my professional travels. That said, I am continually impressed by the “chat” that occurs between students in our online platform. Faces are often replaced by a pet, a farm animal or sometimes a stock photo, but every once in a while, a student decides to share a bit of themselves and their world. I have to say, their rooms look remarkably the same.

Traditionally I would work in my office and wait for students to come to me if they need help. Now I find myself on a prearranged Zoom call, trying to help someone understand the intricacies and complexities of organic chemistry, a field near and dear to my heart.

A few weeks in I have already had a call with a student from Botswana, who shared a passion for chemistry and even offered to add a few pictures to our virtual classroom discussion. Another student requested a meeting and we scheduled it for 1 p.m., right after class. Only during our call did I learn he was based in Asia, so this meeting was in the middle of his night. I did not see a sleepy-eyed 18 or 19-year-old, but an eager and active participant. I offered to hold our next session at 8 a.m. so it would be a decent hour, but I got no complaint about our originally organized meeting time. A third student asked for help and mentioned she was in Singapore. Others connected from Dubai and Malaysia. I am travelling the world from my home office.

Some Canadians and international students are based in dormitories on campus in Toronto or in family homes. A hidden diversity of situations with one goal – to learn.

Professors are a fortunate lot. We get to interact with some of the brightest minds of the future when they are still at their most open and receptive. Traditionally students would travel great distances to gain the best education that was open to them. Now they rearrange their lives in order to learn and interact in real-time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a fan of online teaching and would never choose this option if given the choice. On the other hand, it might provide a way to service communities that have historically been underserviced and under-represented.

Life often gives us no choice or two less-than-ideal choices. These students have chosen to be deeply engaged, despite the inconvenience this presents. Our future may be brighter than we often imagine.

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