In Conversation: Dean Melanie Woodin and ASSU President Ikran Jama

September 22, 2020 by A&S News

A&S Dean Melanie Woodin and Ikran Jama, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) have been regularly meeting, along with ASSU leadership, to talk about key topics and current issues affecting students and challenges students have been facing during the pandemic. They caught up with each other on campus — with a little help from Randy Boyagoda, vice-dean undergraduate — to discuss how the Faculty has been managing course delivery and the planning that is currently underway for the winter term. 

In-person and online classes

Students occasionally walked past as Dean Melanie Woodin and Ikran Jama stood physically distant on Willcocks Street, with Randy Boyagoda assisting as their host of sorts "between two ferns."

Jama asked Dean Woodin about the winter timetable and — what’s on the minds of many students — how the Faculty plans on dealing with the current hybrid class situation and what can they expect going forward?

"Throughout the entire decision-making process, at the forefront of our considerations is what's best for students and what students want," said Woodin.

"Some students want to be on campus and, for a variety of reasons, that might not work well for others. While there is no timeline for a pandemic," the key thing for the Faculty, said Woodin, is trying to maintain flexibility and choice so that no matter where they are, students will be able to progress in their studies and have opportunities to engage with their professors throughout the year.

A major challenge has been maintaining this course flexibility while also responding to the situation in Toronto and following public health guidelines.

The planning process

At the start of the pandemic, a model for "dual delivery" was developed, so courses could be offered both in-person and online — with the size of the in-person component depending on the restrictions in place to protect the health and safety of our community, explained Woodin.

The plan was — if at any point classes could not be held in person — as they did in March at the start of the pandemic, the Faculty would shift its focus to online delivery.

"I was really heartened in how chairs and directors and faculty members contributed to that process, and really embraced this delivery model," said Woodin. "And that's what drove our Online Learning Academy to work so intensively with instructors over the summer to make sure they were ready to deliver this and in a high-quality way."

But as the pandemic continued into July and August, faculty members started to articulate concerns about managing online and classroom teaching and it became evident that not all instructors were ready and able to come back to the classroom. In addition, there was increasing uncertainty that some TAs — core parts of a teaching team — would not be able to come to Canada.

The Faculty decided to pause planning for instructors to consult with their teaching teams to make decisions about the best way to deliver the class material — and in light of their own circumstances.

"It's unfortunate that we’ve had to reduce the number of in-person courses and we know this is disappointing for many students," said Woodin. And that disappointment is shared by professors, TAs, and the entire Faculty. 

"We all want to be here in-person. We know how excited students are for those opportunities."

Starting the academic year

Woodin was also keen to know, now that the term has begun, how are things going for students?

Jama said it was going well, but there have been some challenges, such as whether or not some courses would be delivered in-person. But she noted that this information has now been given. 

"Another challenge is just trying to navigate this entire world that we're in right now, I'm sure a lot of students are in the same boat as me — we're feeling anxious," said Jama. 

Jama said that "it’s important that students recognize we’re all in this together and the Faculty also recognizes the position we’re being put in – it’s going to be a challenging year for all of us."

Woodin agreed and said she appreciates getting real time feedback on how students are feeling and what challenges they are facing.

Woodin added just how much the Dean’s Office values the relationship with ASSU and how much the Faculty has relied on their feedback from the students they represent.

"I'll admit that sometimes we get focused on what we think is a particular problem that students might be experiencing," said Woodin. That regular contact with ASSU helps to make sure the Faculty is focusing attention on where students need it. 

"A sincere thanks to all the students for your patience," said Woodin. "Hindsight is 20/20. When we look back, could we have done certain things differently? Absolutely. But we're all learning in this together."

Looking ahead to the Winter Term

Jama was also interested to help students understand why the delivery method for winter term classes is still listed as in-person in the timetable.

Woodin reiterated the objective all along has been to provide students choice for either in-person or online, public health guidelines permitting. 

"In our view, the best way to do that was to wait until closer to the start of the winter term, so that we would have a better sense of the public health situation," said Woodin. 

With case counts on the rise, Woodin said we need to take another pause now to consider the uncertainty about what winter will be like in Toronto and its potential impact on our community and our ability to deliver courses in person. 

"The current plan is that we're going back to chairs and directors and asking them to consult with our instructors and their teaching teams, to reaffirm their decision about whether they want to stay in-person or whether they're making a choice to move online."

Decisions will be made by instructors over the course of the next month and students will start to see updates in the timetable starting this week according to an email from the Faculty Registrar sent to all students. Information has also been updated in the undergraduate student FAQs.

Woodin also reiterated the Dean’s Promise for this academic year: all graduating students can complete their course requirements from abroad.

"We're committed to those students graduating and we're committed to all students having a great learning experience in the winter," said Woodin.