New Brunswick

As universities unveil fall academic plans, students question value of virtual education

As promised by June 1, the University of New Brunswick and Mount Allison University have now released their fall academic plans.

UNB, Mount A release 'flexible' September academic plans

UNB says in-person teaching will be largely restricted to labs after reviewing which courses absolutely had to be delivered that way.

As promised by June 1, the University of New Brunswick and Mount Allison University have now released their fall academic plans.

And, as expected, both will rely heavily on virtual learning to comply with Public Health rules around physical distancing.

In Fredericton, UNB said in-person teaching will be largely restricted to labs after reviewing which courses absolutely had to be delivered that way.

That would include units in science, nursing, engineering and forestry.

George MacLean, UNB's vice-president academic, said faculty have two weeks to come back with more specifics on their teaching plans.  

"By mid-month, we will have more clarity around which programs, which courses, will be offered in different formats," he said.

MacLean said it's just a short-term measure until restrictions loosen more.

"We will return to more normal," he said.

Student alliance disappointed by lack of details

The New Brunswick Student Alliance says Monday's announcement didn't say much more than what the universities have already alluded to in previous news releases.  

Executive director Wasiimah Joomun said it didn't provide enough concrete information for students who are still trying to decide whether the experience will be worth the effort and expense.  

Due to COVID-19, Joomun had to finish her last undergraduate semester at St. Thomas University by taking her courses online and she said she felt disconnected.   

UNB vice-president academic George MacLean said faculty have two weeks to come back with more specifics on their teaching plans. (CBC)

"On a general level I feel like online learning takes away from learning from each other and really, the campus life," she said. 

"University, in the end, is more about the bonds and the relationships you make.

"But if you're in your room by yourself, learning online, the likelihood of you being able to get support from your classmates and your professors — it's less likely to happen. If you're struggling, no one will be able to tell."

Gap year being considered

The Canadian Association of University Teachers recently commissioned a survey of 1,100 students across the country and found a significant number of those who are enrolled for September are having second thoughts due to the impact of COVID-19.

"About 30 per cent said they were reconsidering," said executive director David Robinson.

Wasiimah Joomun, executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, said there has not been enough information released by universities to make firm decisions. (Submitted/New Brunswick Student Alliance)

Some of the respondents said they were worried about money because the pandemic was making it difficult to find a job or because business closures had caused financial hardship for their families.

"The other reason was they felt that if we were going back to school with this remote teaching still in place, that it might not be worth their while to spend another year getting what they feel is not a quality education," said Robinson.

He also added that many students may decide not to take the year off, if they feel their alternative options aren't great. 

Good jobs may be hard to find for a while, said Robinson, and it's also not clear when it will be safe to travel again.  

"Backpacking through Europe, that doesn't really exist right now," he said.

Mount A to offer virtual town halls

Mount Allison University, which largely revolves around residence life and is intertwined with the town of Sackville, hopes to recreate a sense of community in September while still respecting the rules around how to use space.

Some 2,500 students will be welcomed back on the one-million-square-foot campus.

However, fewer students will be accommodated in residence and all rooms will be singles.

Mount Allison University said some classes will be taught in person and, even in those cases, students will have the option of joining by video in case they can't get to Sackville in September. (Mount Allison University)

The university will also provide temporary rooms for incoming students who arrive in the province and have to observe 14 days of isolation.

Some courses will be offered online at fixed times. Others will be self-directed.

Some courses will have on-campus element and in those cases, attendance is expected. 

"Online doesn't mean disengaged," said Jean-Paul Boudreau, president and vice-chancellor.

"Online means opportunities for students to interact with dynamic content."

Boudreau said he recognizes that parents and students still want to know more.

"We're asking them, if they have questions, or concerns or doubts, to please engage with us," he said. 

The university is conducting three virtual town halls next week.

About the Author

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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