New courses on pandemics are popular with both students and alumni, U of G prof says

After successful runs in the fall of 2020 and at the beginning of this year, preparations are underway at the University of Guelph for the third iteration of an online course on pandemics.

'It ended up being one of the most innovative courses I’ve been involved with in my career,' Ryan Gregory says

The courses on pandemics were organized by professors Ryan Gregory, Sofie Lachapelle (now Dean of Arts at Laurier) and Beth Finnis. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

When the idea first came up to put together an online course about pandemics at the University of Guelph, there were questions about whether students would be interested in hearing more about the subject.

Professor of integrative biology Ryan Gregory said he and his colleagues — professor Sofie Lachapelle (now Dean of Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University) and professor Beth Finnis — decided that students were probably tired of hearing the same things about the pandemic everyday.

Instead, Gregory said it was felt that "an exploration of pandemics of the past," how the current situation is impacting all kinds of societal issues, infrastructure and educational practices, "might be something that they would find very enlightening and very informative."

"We went forward with that and it ended up being one of the most interesting and exciting and innovative courses I've been involved with in my career," Gregory told CBC K-W.

After a successful first run in the fall of 2020, it was decided to do it again in the winter. 

Gregory said the first version "was largely trying to make sense of the pandemic, trying to put it in some context, get some of the biology, get some historical context, some social context."

"We talked about things like the food security system and health care and communication and those sorts of things as it was unfolding in real time."

Professor Ryan Gregory says during the course they 'talked about things like the food security system and health care and communication and those sorts of things as it was unfolding in real time.' (Submitted by Ryan Gregory)

In the second round during winter semester, the university took a very different approach and decided to showcase different kinds of scholarship and research that had been done at the university during the pandemic and in response to the pandemic.

"So, the first semester was very much just making sense of what was happening, trying to understand the context of pandemic and by the winter we were able to talk about a number of different projects that people on campus had undertaken in biology, in population medicine, in art, in history, you name it," Gregory said.

Preparations are now underway for a third course later this year.

"The idea is to explore what comes after a pandemic, again, thinking about this in a historical context, so what typically follows an epidemic or a pandemic in historical cases, all the way back to antiquity," he said. 

"We're talking about what we've learned about communication and misinformation, what we've learned about our food security and our food production and distribution system, what we've learned about social justice issues in the context of the pandemic." 

Gregory said the course would also look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted art and music ... what the future of work and the future of education will be, based on things experienced and learned during this pandemic.

According to Gregory, by the end of the third offering, 1,000 students and 500 alumni will have taken part in the courses.

Gregory believes the idea of a course that's based on exploring contemporary issues that are really important from a wide range of perspectives "is a really good model."

"So, we've talked about potential future versions on other topics like climate change … where you've got a wide range of different perspectives that could be brought to bear on that question."


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