Looking ahead to the fall: Q&A with Dean Woodin

May 19, 2020 by A&S News

A&S News connected with Professor Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, to talk about how the Faculty has adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic and what undergraduate students can expect as we look ahead to the Fall Session and the start of a new academic year.

What is the Faculty planning for the fall term?

The president recently shared an update with the U of T community and we wanted to follow that with some more information about our plans in Arts & Science. We know things are evolving and with that in mind we’re planning for a flexible approach that will provide students with choices to learn in-person or online. Just two months ago, A&S professors and students successfully transitioned overnight to online teaching and learning, and there’s no doubt that this historic event has forever changed the landscape of higher education. But as effective as online learning can be, we’re hearing from many students that they’re looking forward to being back in our classrooms, labs, and libraries, and to being together again with their friends – and so, if it’s safe to do so, we’ll be giving students the option of joining us on campus this fall. At the same time, we recognize many of our students won’t be able to be physically present due to a variety of circumstances, and we’re also committing to provide an enriching and high-quality experience for them online.

Is it safe to be back on campus?

The health of our students, staff and faculty is our number one priority. We will only offer in-person learning and activities if, and when, it is safe to do so. The University’s planning, and the timelines toward a gradual re-opening of the campus, will be continually informed by the advice of public health experts and the governmental regulations that are in place. For example, physical distancing requirements will likely continue to be in effect and we will therefore need to modify how we use our classroom space. As many in our community commute to campus, another consideration may be limitations or comfort with public transit and the ability to travel around the GTA. Even when the campus resumes in-person activities, it will be up to individual students to decide if being on campus is the right decision for them at that time. We want to make sure we are responsive to the changing situation and that limitations on travel, space or other factors do not impede our students’ ability to continue their studies. 

If students choose to learn online what course options will be available?

We’re committed to maintaining a variety of course options and equitable access for students who elect to learn online. What this means is that academic units will offer a variety of in-person and online options and many A&S courses will be available in the ‘dual-delivery model’ – some students will learn online, while others taking the same course will learn either online and/or in-person. There is a small-subset of courses that can only be delivered in-person, such as some hands-on lab courses that can’t be virtualized; however, we are committing to students who can’t engage in-person and require these courses, that we will provide them the same access in a subsequent term when they can be here in-person.  

Can you tell us more about how courses will be delivered both online and in-person?

There are a variety of ways instructors can choose to teach students both in-person and online. One option includes live-streamed lectures that allow students (both in-person and online) to learn together in real time, while also recording those lectures for other students to view and engage with the content later (we call this asynchronous learning). To assist instructors in determining the best option for their course, and to support them in teaching in this dual-delivery model, we are developing a suite of online learning resources and technological tools for instructors through our new Online Learning Academy for instructors. We have deep experience in online education across the Faculty, and we’ve learned a lot in the last few months about how to teach effectively and how to meaningfully connect with students online. Whether students learn online or in-person, our accomplished instructors are committed to a high-quality experience for every student.

How is the Faculty helping new students transition in the midst of a pandemic?

Great question! We’re really excited to welcome the Class of 2024, and we want to roll out the virtual red carpet for them during this uncertain time. The Faculty is working closely with all seven colleges on an extensive outreach plan to welcome and transition all admitted students, and we’re putting extra emphasis on the welcome plan this year. We have staff and student mentors who reach out regularly by email to newly admitted students, hold webinars and information sessions and help answer questions through the spring and summer. This year, we are adding more outreach since we have not been able to travel and host events in different regions of Canada and the world. Also, since many secondary school students ended their year early, we are going to have additional programming (free of charge) to help students with their academic preparation over the summer. Every college is likewise also working to deliver outreach programming online throughout the summer around course advising and enrolment and other aspects of transition to university studies. 

Looking back to March, the Faculty had to act quickly to move online when the pandemic hit Toronto. What was that like? 

It was a whirlwind! I think it’s safe to say this has been a year like no other. As a pandemic, COVID-19 is being compared to the 1918 Flu Pandemic – the impact on the global community, on our economies, and the loss of life, is staggering. But of course, the major difference for everyone is our ability to connect virtually – which has allowed us to continue teaching and learning. It’s been difficult for everyone everywhere, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the resilience of our community to find a way to keep going and finish the term. Technically, within a matter of days everyone shifted to working remotely, including all students and faculty in 1797 courses. It wasn’t easy and it was an uneven experience for many, but every course was completed within the term. I’m really proud that the A&S community came together to bring us over the line!

Do you have any final remarks for the A&S community with regards to fall planning? 

Yes, I’d like to thank our students, staff and faculty for their ongoing resilience, patience, understanding and flexibility. This is a fluid situation and there are a lot of variables outside of our control. We’re doing our best to plan with the most definitive and timely information available. There will undoubtedly be unforeseen bumps in the road ahead that we will have to navigate, and as we do, our plans will continue to evolve. For example, we must be prepared for the potential that restrictions will increase or decrease over time. Throughout, we’ll stay focused on our commitment to ensuring a safe and enriching academic year for the members of our entire community, wherever they are, and however they choose to connect. 

Thank you, Dean Woodin. Would you be interested in providing another update like this again soon?

Definitely. I know our students and their families will still have unanswered questions, and we’re doing our best to provide answers to them as soon as we can. I’ll continue to stay in touch and keep our community updated through email, our website and social media. And I invite everyone to please stay in touch with us as well through our multiple communication channels – we’re always happy to answer questions, and to learn about how everyone in our community is doing during this pandemic!


Student Resources

From virtual advising appointments and online webinars to tips from current students, there are many resources available to support you through your online studies: