McMaster’s Virtual Learning Task Force delivers its report

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Supporting students with study strategies, creating more ways for students to interact with each other during class, reducing the number of electronic learning platforms being used and increasing resources to help instructors improve virtual course content were among suggestions put forward by a task force created by the provost.

The Virtual Learning Task Force has delivered its report to the provost, which includes 21 recommendations for the university to enhance the teaching and learning experience.

“It’s important to reflect on what we’ve learned from the virtual fall semester and move forward on ways to better support our community heading into the winter term,” said provost Susan Tighe, who has endorsed the report and its recommendations.

The task force had already made an earlier recommendation to the Provost and the President and Vice-Presidents (PVP) that student mental health issues related to online learning and the ongoing pandemic, including stress, isolation, anxiety and motivation, are a critical issue.

This will be addressed by the existing McMaster Okanagan Committee, which looks at a variety of issues, including mental health, to enhance the health and well-being of students, staff and faculty. The university has long had a campus-wide mental health strategy and offers  numerous supports for students.

As well, the group recommended that the start of winter classes be delayed by one week and encouraged instructors to use the first week of class to connect with students. This recommendation was announced by the University on Nov. 19.

The new recommendations were grouped by short- to long-term timelines, designed to offer support to both students and instructors, help alleviate stress heading into the virtual winter term and looking ahead to possible solutions for the Fall/Winter 2021-22 year that will depend on the course of the pandemic.

Read the report

Other suggestions from the task force range from establishing central hubs for course content, regular student surveys and offering practical, simple-to-execute tips to instructors, including reducing workloads for students, improving course organization, fostering stronger connections and giving students more opportunities to offer feedback. Instructors can expect an email from the Provost’s Office with the list of tips. A more complete list of suggestions can be found here.

“We have listened to the feedback and factored in the results from various surveys when crafting these recommendations,” said Ishwar K. Puri, co-chair of the task force and dean of engineering. “We hope that these ideas resonate with students and instructors so that we can work together to address the ongoing challenges and meet the opportunities that lay ahead for us as a campus community in 2021.”

The task force drew on the experiences of its 31 members from across campus and on the findings of several surveys, including Equity and Inclusion Office’s Winter 2020 Student Educational Experience Survey, the MacPherson Institute’s Fall 2020 Experience Survey and the Office of Community Engagement’s Fall 2020 Community Engaged Learning Survey.

“It is clear that virtual learning has been a tough transition for many members of our community,” said Jeremiah Hurley, co-chair of the task force and dean of social sciences.

“These unprecedented times pushed the task force to rethink what McMaster’s commitment to academic excellence means in a virtual environment by developing recommendations to alleviate feelings of being overwhelmed and providing opportunities to start the winter semester refreshed and prepared together.”

More than 3,000 people responded to the MacPherson Institute Survey in October, the majority of them students. The bulk of those responding rated their overall experience with virtual learning positively — from excellent to fair. A significant number, a third of the respondents, expressed concern about their overall virtual learning experience, establishing interpersonal connections and cited feeling overwhelmed. Some instructors also mentioned feeling overloaded.

Many students and instructors spoke positively about their ability to form the connections that create a good teaching and learning experience in the remote context.

Instructors and students also shared feelings of being overwhelmed by the number and types of platforms available and in use for their courses.  Students said it can be frustrating and confusing to consult different platforms within and between courses; faculty described struggling with how to determine which platforms are most appropriate for their courses.

Read the surveys

The task force recommends that discussions regarding virtual learning will continue in 2021 through the University’s Teaching and Learning Advisory Group and include technology experts, pedagogical experts, instructors, and students.

“I want to thank the Virtual Learning Task Force, MacPherson Institute and the many others who were instrumental in putting this plan into motion,” said Tighe. “As a leader in educational innovation and problem-based learning, McMaster is always willing to learn and make changes that will benefit students and instructors. In such a dynamic environment as a pandemic, this is even more critically important.”