Western says online learning could be the norm for some time

Summer school starts today at Western University and surprisingly enrollments are higher than last summer, despite the fact that all courses will remain online due the pandemic, says John Doerksen, the vice-president of academic programs at Western.

Western's vice-provost academic says the sudden transition to e-learning in March went 'remarkably well'

Enrollments in Western University's summer school program are higher than last year, even though all of the courses will continue to be offered only online because of the pandemic, says John Doerksen, the vice-provosts of academic programs. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Summer school started Monday at Western University and student enrolment for online courses is higher than last summer when classes were held on campus.

John Doerksen, Western's vice president of academic programs, told CBC's London Morning on Monday that more students might be enrolling now because people tend to go back to school when times are tough and jobs are scarce.

Pandemic rules means all post-secondary institutions have had to rethink teaching techniques for online courses, including how to handle the upcoming fall semester.

Doerksen said Western moved more than 2,000 undergrad courses on-line to end the winter session in March and he said it went "remarkably well." 

At this point, there are no plans to cut courses or programs in the fall, and no layoffs are anticipated, Doerksen said. He notes that e-learning requires more effort than conventional teaching.

"You need educational designers, instructional designers, videographers. You need that team of people to wrap around the professor, who has the content knowledge."

Fall plans TBA

Western is now waiting to see provincial plans around social distancing in order to plan for fall courses. Will classes continue to be offered only online, or will students be allowed back into lecture halls as emergency restrictions in the province are gradually lifted?

John Doerksen is the vice-provost academic at Western University. (Western University)

"I think there are various options here. You could imagine delivering a lot of the content online but also having student engagement in small groups, in-person if possible, if that's allowable with physical distancing."

Doerksen cautions the fall might also see a return to regular classes with a second wave of the virus forcing all students back online.

International students

A big unknown is how many of Western's nearly 3,000 international students, who pay significantly higher tuition than domestic students, will come back.

It's hard to predict because there's no way of knowing what the travel situation will be like in September, Doerksen said, or whether study visas will be renewed. 

One scenario being considered is allowing international students who have trouble making travel arrangements to begin the term online in September and join in-person classes in October or November. 

Doerksen said Western isn't overly concerned about the potential loss of revenue from international students if large numbers of them don't return.

"Maybe Western doesn't have as large a proportion of international students as some universities across the country. It's of course a consideration for all student enrolments, but I would say at this time, it's not really the top item of conversation."

He conceded that if there was a significant shortfall in international student tuition, it would have an impact in the long term, but added that it's not a "burning" issue right now.