Faculty adjust to a new COVID-19 reality: online, physically-distanced classes

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced faculty members to be extremely adaptable — starting with the one weekend they had to transition their classes to online in March. Now, faculty face new tasks for fall term: either completely converting their courses to online formats, or figuring out how to conduct class while physically distanced.

Although UBC has confirmed that fall-term classes of the 2020/21 academic year will be primarily online, the Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting, film production, theatre design and production and visual arts; the Bachelor of Music and the Bachelor of Social Work programs will have select classes on campus this semester while following established safety measures.

In preparation for the classes that will be on campus this fall, faculty members have organized meetings — both within UBC and with other universities — to figure out how to address health concerns during the ongoing pandemic.

T. Patrick Carrabré, the School of Music director, will be teaching some in-person classes.

“We think that a room will only be able to operate at about 20 per cent capacity … If we can figure out how to make good music … that’s gonna be where we try and stay until things get a little bit better,” he said.

Physical interaction is at the core of many classes in programs like music and an online format would hinder enrolled students from applying what they have learned in class.

Although these classes will be on campus, Carrabré said that UBC will implement specific health and safety guidelines for professors and students. However, individuals who feel uncomfortable being in the classroom will have access to alternative resources through which they can continue moving forward in their courses without having their health compromised.

“Particularly with faculty members, we are trying to be as adaptable as possible,” said Carrabré. He’s already had two faculty members tell him that they can’t teach in person, and he said safety is “paramount.”

“We’re going to try and make sure that we have the ability to adapt to what [those faculty members’] needs are,” Carrabré said. “As long as we’re ... really accepting of people’s concerns and ensure safety is the number one thing, then I think we’ll be okay.”

Transitioning in-person classes online

Those teaching online classes already have some practice due to the quick shift in the spring term. But Chris Erickson, a political science lecturer, called the transition from in-person to online a “little tricky.”

“Online courses are different from in-person courses. They require some different prep work,” said Erickson, who shifted to teaching classes on Collaborate Ultra in the spring before the university mandated online classes. “Last term … it actually went reasonably well. I think the fall is going to be relatively smooth.”

At the Learning and Research Committee meeting in the June Board of Governors cycle, UBC administrators and committee members discussed how UBC faculty members can adapt to online learning while still supporting their students.

Simon Bates, associate provost teaching and learning, said at the meeting that the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology has shifted its focus to training faculty on remote teaching. He also said that the university will be offering an online teaching program for faculty later in June and are already holding workshops for teaching assistants.

Instructors are also preparing for the possibility that classes in the spring might be online as well, and to the simple fact that circumstances have been changing very rapidly. Math Professor Mark Mac Lean said he’s taking the summer to plan ahead.

“I’d really like to have good answers and parameters to work with at the moment, but ... I just don’t think they exist yet, and so I’m just going to go ahead and plan the best courses that I can,” Mac Lean said.

He added that due to the summer term of planning, he expects that online classes will be a lot better than students might expect.

“We can expect that the courses that we’re redesigning around such a learning context are actually going to be very strong experiences for students — at least that’s my expectation.”