University in times of pandemic

by Maude Dumas special collaboration

In the current economic climate, the challenge is great not only for the students, but also for the professors and the specialized personnel of our universities. The Federation of Professionals * (FP-CSN) is looking into the issue.

One only has to walk through the doors of a university campus to feel the impact of the pandemic firsthand: there is no palpable excitement, no gatherings in common areas, no crowded cafes. What about the classes? They are almost all empty. Even if the return to school is well underway, it is dead calm. On the other hand, for teachers and professionals, it’s a different story: after having worked hard to save the winter and summer terms, then made every effort to organize the fall one, they face significant challenges.

“At the beginning of September, some professors were already on the verge of exhaustion,” worries Michel Lacroix, president of the Union of Professors of the University of Quebec in Montreal (SPUQ). Some did not take a vacation this summer to prepare for the start of the school year. Due to the changes brought on by COVID-19, it is like a first year of education for many. “

Virtual education: very real consequences
Copy and paste is not enough to transform a course normally given in class into quality virtual sessions. Teachers must learn to master new computer tools, create stimulating visual presentations, adapt narratives and recordings to improve quality, all to capture the interest of students.

Despite all the efforts made by the professors, the vice-president of the university sector of the FP-CSN, Louise Briand, fears dropping out of courses, even of programs, especially among engineering or law students, who fear not not pass the exams of their professional corporation at the end of their course. The problem is, we don’t offer true distance learning that would allow students and faculty alike to work at their own pace, on their schedule and in a location that suits them. “Rather, we offer ‘non-face-to-face’ education,” she says. We are transforming our courses to make them accessible on an electronic platform in order to comply with public health instructions. We tinker with the emergency. It is a crisis situation which must not become permanent. “

The trade unionist, who has participated in numerous meetings with the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Higher Education since the start of the pandemic, maintains that the role of current education is poorly understood. “We hear a lot about the use of technopedagogy, while ” techno-learning ” is not guaranteed. “

Student supervision: a challenge to be met
Workplace videoconferences – especially those that go on forever! – are less productive than face-to-face meetings, and the same is true in academia. It’s not easy to speak to a class represented on the screen by dozens of miniature windows. Difficult to establish a bond, to decode the non-verbal language or to measure the level of comprehension to adjust the speech accordingly. “Speaking up and participating are more difficult in a course offered on Zoom or Teams, which puts some more reserved students at a disadvantage,” explains Stéphanie Demers, outgoing president of the Union des professeures et professors de l’Université du Québec en Outaouais ( SPUQO).

Another observation: the volume of electronic communications that professors receive is four to five times greater in times of pandemic. The answers to the questions, which are asked individually, benefit only one student at a time, and the time allocated to managing emails increases accordingly. That said, professors are well aware of the problems their students are experiencing – such as those who, having lost their jobs, can no longer afford an internet connection or access to electronic equipment – and they are doing their utmost. to help them.

The challenges of supervising students do not only concern teachers: specialists in student services in psychology, health and guidance have also had to review their methods. “Almost all of these professionals perform remote consultations, which is not obvious due to the nature of their work; many would like to return to their offices, ”said Shoshana Kalfon, president of the Union of Professional Employees of Concordia University (SEPUC). In addition, as she points out, we must not forget that the schedule of IT and techno-pedagogical specialists was also turned upside down, as they had to work extra hard to ensure the smooth running of teleworking and virtual lessons.

Teachers and professionals: the task grows heavier
An agreement increasing the number of undergraduate students to 61 per class in “non-face-to-face mode” was reached this fall between the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) and its professors. “It’s 16 more than last term,” explains Stéphanie Demers, “but it is better than the 700 students per group that another university would have tried to impose. Drop-outs and dropping out must be closely monitored. The learning conditions for students must be at the heart of our concerns, and this involves the size of the groups as well as the support for teachers. “

As Michel Lacroix points out, we cannot ignore the repercussions of teleworking on the personal lives of teachers and professionals. “The pandemic will widen the existing inequalities,” he says. Studies show that parents, especially women, are badly affected, and this is certainly the case for family caregivers. “

Research is weakened
The pandemic is also affecting the research activities of professors: protocols fall apart, seminars are canceled, publications are reduced, grant deadlines must be renegotiated with granting agencies. Research output is crucial for securing new grants, and it is a critical part of the university mission that is being challenged. “The 2020 research gap will follow professors until 2026,” comments Michel Lacroix.

Possible solutions
How do you go about solving these problems? The solution first and foremost involves a review of the funding programs offered by the Quebec government as well as the addition of resources to compensate, among other things, for the lack of lecturers. Currently, over 90% of university funding is based on the number of FTEs (full-time equivalent students), and its assessment takes place over an average period of three years. However, the unpredictable factor of the pandemic is changing the situation: it is impossible to guess whether students will move from one university to another because virtual education offers them unprecedented mobility, nor to assess the consequences of the withdrawal of students. international students.

Regarding the eCampus project of the Government of Quebec, which plans to consolidate the distance learning offer of higher education institutions, Stéphanie Demers is categorical: “The business model of the eCampus has nothing to do with the university mission. It is even incompatible, because it will put universities in competition. It would be a very bad idea to use the crisis as a springboard to pervert higher education. Finally, it remains to explore the findings and possible solutions presented in the report of the think tank on the University of the future, which has just been published. Initiated in 2019 by the chief scientist of Quebec and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, it was awaited with great interest by the university community even before the onset of the crisis. It will be all the more relevant during a pandemic.

* The FP-CSN has adopted the neologism professionèles, which favors a non-sexist drafting model.

FP-CSN: bringing together to better represent

The Federation of Professionals (FP-CSN) represents 9,000 professionals and technicians working in five major sectors: health and social services, education, government agencies, private sector, social economy and community action.

This content was produced by the Devoir special publications team in
collaboration with the advertiser. Le Devoir’s editorial team played no role
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