Teaching and learning focus of Virtual Town Hall held April 21

Vari pond

A Virtual Town Hall led by members of York University’s leadership team on April 21 aimed to address concerns raised specifically by the University’s faculty and instructional staff. The hour-long event is one of several group-specific Virtual Town Halls the University will be hosting, and follows the April 2 event that shared York’s plans for moving forward during the global pandemic.

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

This most recent Virtual Town Hall featured President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton, along with Vice-President Academic & Provost Lisa Philipps, Vice-President Equity, People & Culture Sheila Cote-Meek, and Interim Vice-President Research & Innovation Rui Wang, who answered questions and provided information relating to teaching, research and human resources.

Lenton opened with remarks on the community’s strength in coming together during this unprecedented time, and shared an update on the University’s plans for the Summer and Fall terms.

“We have summer planning well underway, and we will very soon begin thinking about the Fall and the broader issues that are going to have an impact on us in the long term,” she said. “All of our decisions are, first and foremost, about ensuring the safety and well-being of our community.”

She acknowledged the desire for the uncertainty to be resolved, and reminded viewers that the University’s decisions on lifting restrictions in response to the pandemic are guided by Toronto Public Health and the government. The University, she said, is working on scenario planning and administration has considered three different scenarios: full campus opening in the Fall; a more conservative opening in the Fall leading to full opening in January 2021; and an intermediate scenario, which involves the assumption that there will be significant social distancing still in place, with the possibility that smaller groups may be able to be on campus for the Fall.

What she could say with more certainty is that these decisions will likely come in mid-May.

Another major consideration is whether international borders will remain closed, which could result in a significant decline in international student intake. That, combined with other losses of revenue such as those from ancillary services and The Bookstore, and more robust investments in technology to respond to distance learning, the University could be looking at a significant financial impact.

“Based on [pandemic planning for] Winter and Summer, there is ample evidence that this community has the ability and the commitment to support our students and ensure that we are all prepared to manage the Fall term,” she said.

Community concerns over supports and resources available for faculty as more courses move online were also addressed, with news of the Teaching Commons launching the BOLD Institute (Blending and Online Learning Development), which offers faculty members and instructors an opportunity to explore pedagogy and planning for online formats. UIT will continue to support online learning with the offer of technology where needed, said Philipps.

In addition, the University is offering spaces on campus that can be opened up for single-person use for faculty members to use for providing lectures, etc., if their home setup is not suitable.

“We are also interested in hearing what additional supports you are looking for in making the transition to online learning, and additional suggestions are welcome,” said Philipps.

Vice-President Academic & Provost Lisa Philipps

In response to a question about whether contract faculty will be compensated for the extra time and expenses invested in moving courses online, Philipps said there are provisions in the collective agreement about additional compensations, and the University continues to work with the unions to find solutions.

The issue of the collective agreement right for an instructor to choose the format of their course was also raised. Lenton, in response, said at a time when face-to-face instruction isn’t possible, instructors who feel they are unable to move to an online format should work with their respective deans to find solutions.

“In order to minimize obstacles for our students and supporting them in advancing through their programs, we have worked very closely with various unions and Senate on making decisions surrounding the move to online and remote delivery formats,” said Lenton, adding they are always trying to accommodate individual faculty members’ preferences with student learning experiences.

“If we are in a situation where there’s a real difficulty that requires the union, then we will sit down with the union,” she said.

Concerns were also raised on how York will ensure online materials and lectures will be secure and not “migrate over to the broader Internet.” Lenton assured that the University is taking “all the normal steps that we always take for the online courses the University offers.” Philipps suggested sending reminders to students on intellectual property rights when providing material.

A question on how the University will move forward with fair and equitable proctoring of exams was posed, and Philipps acknowledged this as “the most challenging area to sort out.” Students have expressed concerns with privacy and personal settings in these instances, and the University is working on better solutions.

There is also an issue with courses requiring in-person instruction, such as labs, and community members asked how the University will move forward with those elements in the Fall. The solution, as it stands, is to rethink the timing of where those courses sit within a program and whether they can be deferred to the Winter semester. Some faculty members, said Philipps, have come up with “ingenious” ways to do virtual labs – but she concedes that certain in-person sessions would be difficult to replace in a virtual setting.

“With grad students and grad programs, that’s a whole other layer there – and every grad program director is working to identify what are the possible solutions for those students,” said Philipps.

As well, students will continue to be supported with access to technology where needed, as well as access to financial relief funds and accommodations where needed. Instructors look to support their students with existing, or new, accommodations should reach out their associate deans.

Community members asked about whether the University has approached the government for financial support. Lenton said conversations are ongoing, but also acknowledged that the province has made public health its priority. Discussions with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities led to a $25-million relief fund for Ontario’s post-secondary institutions to offset some of the costs of restructuring during the pandemic. She shared that executive heads of post-secondary institutions in Ontario have come together to determine their collective top three priorities, asked for by the province, which include: supporting students and making it possible for students to return to their studies; stabilizing higher education given the potential losses (including delaying of SMA3 implementation and removing the international student costs); and asking for financial support so each University could develop custom strategies to support online education. The University, said Lenton, has also been advocating at the federal level to be included in a recently announced infrastructure relief fund.

“I very much understand the need for clarity and I want to acknowledge we do not have all the answers yet,” said Lenton. “We will have to work collectively together to figure out how to deal with the potential financial impact of this, but I am grateful for the way community has come together and am confident in our ability to find innovative solutions to the challenges we face.”

Those would who like to provide feedback on the event can do so at this link: https://president.apps01.yorku.ca/forms/view.php?id=145434.

By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, deputy editor, YFile