Coping with change – Teaching in the time of COVID

Professor  – Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering  | Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering | University of Toronto

When the University of Toronto announced in April 2020 that it was cancelling classes due to COVID, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine that a year later we would still not be back in lecture halls. At the start of the pandemic there was a sense of crisis: in-person lectures were cancelled on a Friday and by Monday professors were expected to be teaching on-line, something most of us had never done before.

As a professor of engineering, I was expected to be more comfortable than most with new technology, but it was still a steep learning curve. Amazingly, on Monday morning most people were ready, and students adapted quickly to lectures on Zoom. We managed to finish the remaining few weeks of the semester without any serious hitches.

When it became clear that online teaching would continue in the fall, we were better prepared. Now there was a sense that online teaching did not have to be just a stopgap measure but offered advantages of its own. This was something that had been discussed in academic circles for many years, but now we had an opportunity to experiment.

With online classes we don’t have to follow the conventional style of lecturing where a professor writes on a blackboard and students take notes. Information can be supplied to students in pre-recorded segments, and lecture time devoted to discussion and problem-solving. On-line discussions proved surprisingly lively: students who are hesitant to speak in class find it easier to type questions into a chat box. Since lectures are recorded, it is easy for them to go back and replay anything they did not understand or catch up with a lecture that they missed.

Online teaching makes it possible to organize entirely new types of classes. Every February I join some other colleagues to teach an advanced engineering course for students in Germany. This year the course was offered online, and we were amazed to discover that instead of the usual 40 students we had more than 200 registering! The course ran over 5 days, taught by 8 different instructors taking turns, and enrolled over 200 students spread across 3 continents. It was such a success that we plan to repeat it this summer.

COVID has been a time of trauma, forcing wrenching changes upon us all. But change, even when imposed, makes us re-evaluate what we have been doing. Professors and students have all had to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning, and some of these have proved to be better than our old manner of doing things. Education has been changed and even when the pandemic is over, we will never go back to doing things exactly as before.