Nfld. & Labrador

Students first: How MUN profs shifted their courses from the classroom to online

Following a pause in instruction on March 18, Memorial University professors were given marching orders to gear up for teaching everything online beginning on March 23. 
Following a pause in instruction on March 18, Memorial University professors were given marching orders to gear up for teaching everything online starting on March 23. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

When Sarah Martin describes how she feels about the end of Memorial University's current semester, there's one word that keeps popping up: sad. 

"I feel very sad actually. About not being able to properly be able to say goodbye to students," said Martin, an assistant professor in the university's political science department. 

Following a pause in instruction on March 18, Memorial professors were given marching orders to gear up for teaching everything online starting on March 23. 

The COVID-19 pivot came after what was already a challenging semester because of the shutdown during January's record snowfall and state of emergency

The lingering question for the university's professors: how do you make such a big change while minimizing stress and difficulty for students? 

For Martin it meant a lot more time sending emails and connecting online because she was no longer seeing students in the classroom. 

"The students are going through a lot. I am certainly concerned about their well-being," she said. 

And on top of political science lessons, Martin is also giving a broader life lesson. 

"I'm consciously taking time to send emails out to students to reassure them that the course or the paper that are due are not the most important thing right now. That their well-being is the most important thing," she said. 

Political science professor Sarah Martin calls each semester a 'journey' with students and says she's sad about not being able to say a proper goodbye to them. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Students are 'rock stars'  

In an email, gender studies associate professor Sonja Boon called her students rock stars because of how well they've adapted to such trying times. 

"What I've felt most is a distance from students. I miss them. I miss our in-class conversations, that energy that comes from being in the same room together," she said. 

Boon also said she feels in terms of teaching, a lot is lost by going online. 

At the university's school of music, the decision was made to suspend instruction and cancel public events — including the recital season. 

Students were then given the choice of taking their current grades or asking for additional assessment.

Music school dean Ian Sutherland said the move was done for physical health, to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, and for the mental health of students, "knowing that going remotely and so on was going to provide a sense of anxiety and stress."

Sutherland said he's done online sessions with students over the past couple of weeks to see how they're doing. 

"Students seem to be doing well. As well as can be expected amidst this extraordinary circumstance that we find ourselves in," he said. 

A creative challenge 

Ian Sutherland is the dean of the Memorial University School of Music. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Sutherland also said both the school's instructors and students are trying to see this time as an opportunity for creativity. 

He added interesting online projects are in the works using platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. 

"It was stressful for us," said Scott Harding, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry. 

Harding was teaching a course with two other people and they all had to adapt to a new plan together. 

"We quickly put together a plan, we fleshed it out as best we could to see if it would benefit the students and not harm any students. And I think we accomplished it," he said. 

Harding said the feedback was generally positive but recognized the shift hasn't been positive for all students. 

He said one of his students had to leave the province to go home and dropped the course because the workload along with the relocation was too much. 

More stress ahead  

Looking at the unknown road ahead, Harding feels there's more stress to come.  

He said eventually things will get back to some sense of normality and it will then take time to get research programs all back up and running. 

"That's going to be probably more stressful than what a lot of people are going through right now at this stage," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.

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