Canadian faculty describe despair from online teaching

Opposition, however, may be less about format and more about resource shortages

December 2, 2020
Online learning
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Canadian faculty are deeply distressed after several months of online teaching, but aren’t ready to give up on the idea of a hybrid transition if given more time and resources, a survey in Ontario is suggesting.

At the moment, the survey by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) found, the online experience has left most instructors eager to resume fully in-person teaching as soon as the pandemic allows.

The poll of 2,700 Ontario students, faculty and academic librarians contacted in October and November found that 62 per cent of the students and 76 per cent of faculty and academic librarians see the online shift bringing a net negative effect on educational quality.

“It’s a wake-up call for universities who might be more inclined to move to online” more permanently after trying it during the coronavirus lockdowns, said Gyllian Phillips, a professor of English at Nipissing University and board chair of the provincial faculty grouping.

Yet the unhappiness among faculty appeared to have less to do with the virtual format than with the lack of preparation and funding, said Professor Phillips, a past president of the Ontario faculty confederation.

“There’s no doubt that there’s very effective models for delivering online education, and that it has a role to play in the system,” she said. “I would never say online has to go.”

That appeared to be the sense nationally in Canada, said Brenda Austin-Smith, a professor of film studies at the University of Manitoba and president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“This is not a conversation of a complaint solely about the delivery mode,” said Professor Austin-Smith, whose association counts the Ontario faculty grouping among its regional members.

Instead, she said, the abrupt shifts to online during the pandemic helped expose resource gaps – in areas such as staffing and computer technology – that always existed.

That’s especially true, Professor Austin-Smith said, in the case of short-term teaching staff who described themselves in the Ontario survey as facing high levels of stress. In many cases, she said, such provisional staff were not paid over the summer and yet were expected to spend much of that time reworking their classes to fit online delivery needs.

Such staff also feared that Covid could kill them or those around them, while they were offered little mental health support, Professor Austin-Smith said.

“Put all that together and, yeah, it’s awful,” she said. “If we weren’t in the blitz, I think there would be better planning, better conversations, more creativity, less desperation or unfairness – and then maybe something interesting could emerge.”

Along with those concerns, Professor Phillips said, many provisional staff faced the prospect of not being rehired for the autumn, while other teaching staff were assigned much larger groups of students.

The faculty association does not have data on staffing and classroom consolidations, but Professor Phillips said she had heard anecdotal tales, such as a professor at her institution being given a class four times its previous size.

“I don’t think anybody is saying: ‘Oh my goodness, there’s absolutely no future for online learning’ – there is,” Professor Austin-Smith said.

“But at this particular point, it’s horrific,” she said. “Because everybody is forced to do it, they don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the training, they don’t have the support, they’re working for free, contract academics are not getting paid, students are in despair, they’re turning off their cameras.”

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Reader's comments (1)

I spent a thousand dollars on lighting, cameras, and microphones because my university was too cheap and wanted me to produce professional recordings just using my laptop webcam. Then they took away my teaching assistant because of alleged financial shortages before realising they were actually making a big surplus. Three times as much work and investing my own salary into the job, that's what I call pull factors in this dying industry.