Edmonton

'A fall like no other': MacEwan, U of A presidents talk online classes, new roles

Both presidents say their universities have been preparing for the fall semester since the end of the spring session. 

'It has been a challenge. It wasn't the arrival on campus that I had hoped for'

The majority of classes at MacEwan University and University of Alberta are being offered online this fall. (Shutterstock)

The new presidents of two of Edmonton's largest universities say getting ready for a fall semester during a pandemic has been a challenge like no other.

And for Annette Trimbee, president of MacEwan University, and Bill Flanagan, president at the University of Alberta, it's all on top of starting new roles as president of their respective schools.  

"It has been a challenge. It wasn't the arrival on campus that I had hoped for," Flanagan told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Nonetheless, we've done a pretty good job of engaging as much as we can online and we're very much prepared for the fall."

Trimbee came to MacEwan from the University of Winnipeg, where she had been president since 2014. She started her new position Aug. 1.

Flanagan was dean of law at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., from 2005 until 2019. He assumed his new role at the U of A on July 1.

Both say their universities have been preparing for the fall semester since the end of the spring session. 

Issues, like setting up online learning or accommodating international students who need to self-isolate, have all needed to be addressed.

"These are interesting times.This will be a fall like no other," said Trimbee.

Online learning

U of A students started classes on Tuesday while MacEwan students are hitting the books on Sept. 9. 

In both cases, the campuses will look a little different as many classes are being offered online.

Flanagan and Trimbee agree that it's been a process to set up students and faculty for online learning. 

But Trimbee said there are some advantages to online learning and in some ways, "online offers a more personalized experience."

"The way we're delivering services is changing," she said. 

"So for example, if you're a student in a classroom, a little reluctant to put up your hand and engage in conversation, some of those same students find it quite easy to engage through a chat function, virtual platform." 

Annette Trimbee became MacEwan University president in August. (MacEwan University)

Trimbee added that many faculty members have had to get creative in how they will deliver online lessons.

"If anything, this rapid acceleration of our embracing of a virtual teaching environment has really moved us up by six, seven years," she said. 

"So in some ways, the changes in higher education have been accelerated as a result of this pandemic." 

We'll hear from the presidents of two of Edmonton's biggest universities as semester begins. 15:45

Flanagan said since he joined the school in summer, many U of A students have told him they miss the in-person experience on campus.

"That said, I am really impressed by the resilience of students," he said.

"I think students have been very game in throwing themselves into the online world and we're learning a lot about the potential of online as a learning mechanism."

Bill Flanagan took over his new duties on July 1, taking over from outgoing president David Turpin. (University of Alberta)

Online classes have been an issue for some post-secondary students in the province. Some have argued for lower tuition, saying that they will not get what they paid for with online classes.

Joel Agarwal, president of the U of A Students' Union, told CBC News in May that the switch to online classes "was the right thing to do" considering the pandemic.

He said the union's top priority was ensuring the quality of education was not diminished in the transition.

Tuition was not lowered for MacEwan and U of A students, with tuition fees increasing at both schools for this fall semester.

Flanagan and Trimbee have said online learning isn't cheaper for universities.

In some cases, costs are actually higher, due to "technical investments" among other costs, Flanagan said. 

U of A students started their fall semester Sept. 1 with some glitches with the school's online learning portal.

Students were unable to access the University of Alberta's online portal, eClass, for several hours Tuesday morning, while the system malfunctioned and sent out error messages.

The issue with eClass, which U of A officials did not provide details on, has since been fixed, Flanagan said.

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