When the pandemic hit in Canada, Universities were three weeks away from finishing the Winter term. In the few days before the shut-down, the priority revolved around finishing the term online and, while maintaining academic integrity, the community had to exercise a higher degree of flexibility, creativity and sensitivity towards a vast majority of students and instructors who were largely unprepared for the sudden change.
While faculty members dealt with academic and pedagogical delivery of the curriculum, staff, and in particular those in essential services and Information Technology worked around the clock to ensure the delivery of services and enhance online capacity. Such was the reality shared by all universities in Canada. York University went above and beyond by procuring 1500 laptops to be loaned out to students so they could continue their studies. Emergency financial bursaries, relief funds, enhanced virtual services were immediately set up in an attempt to deal not only with the financial devastation of our students’ livelihood, but also to support hundreds of students who were left stranded in residences when countries officially close down their borders and travel became limited.
Now a new and unprecedent Summer term has began and, while the strong enrollments are also unprecedent, the future remains largely unknown as to the consequences of our new realities. Will students remain engaged? Will faculty members be able to adapt quick enough and deliver the materials in enriching, academically sound ways? How to accommodate international students who are not only in different time zones, but might also have serious accessibility issues. Will the infrastructure hold up? The return to campus also remains unknown; like most universities in Canada, we will have a fall term online with the potential of a few select courses on campus. The university is currently engaging with its members in identifying those courses that cannot be delivered online. Due to the size of our campus, the congregation of thousands of people from a wide range of communities, it is unlikely that a safe return can even happen before next Winter. Without a vaccine, students, staff and faculty members hold great concerns for their safety and that of other members with precarious or chronic health conditions.
Universities are also grappling with the effects of the virtual world beyond curriculum delivery. Isolation, financial and personal loss, mental health rank high among the matters discussed these days. And then there is the matter of what a university education entails. It is not a transactional exchange of goods, but rather a state of becoming; becoming better world citizens, better-informed human beings with an enhanced capacity for understanding and empathy. How will we accomplish this online? Institutions and in particular those of us who work in the Humanities will have a role to play in ensuring that this cohort of students not only understand the value of human interaction, but that once we return, that we do not fall back on our old tricks relying heavily on gadgets. Rather, that we celebrate a rebirth of humanity, that we care for one another in meaningful transformative ways.
Maria João Dodman/*Professor at York University