New campus-wide task force to explore challenges and best practices in virtual learning

Hands at a laptop keyboard

Streamlining the use of online learning platforms, managing time zones and the need for connection are some of the issues being explored by a new task force created by the provost and designed to assess and enhance the virtual learning experience at McMaster.

“The fall term has been a whole new experience for instructors and students,” said provost Susan Tighe. “It’s important that we take the time to identify concerns, find solutions to any problems and share information about best practices that we can use in the 2021 winter term.”

The Virtual Learning Task Force, comprised of 31 faculty, students and staff members from across campus, is co-chaired by Dean of Engineering Ishwar Puri and Social Sciences Dean Jeremiah Hurley.

“The virtual fall semester has presented McMaster with real challenges but also real opportunities,” said Hurley. “Faculty and instructors have done a great job translating and reformulating courses to work online but there wasn’t a lot of time for the transition and we know we can learn a lot from what is happening this fall and apply that learning across campus. We have a rich history of innovation in teaching and learning at McMaster and this work will build on that legacy.”

The task force is collecting feedback and gathering information from a variety of sources, including the results of a survey conducted by the MacPherson Institute.

More than 3,000 undergraduate, graduate, continuing education students and instructors answered the survey in October which asked respondents to rate and comment upon their online learning experience including the number of platforms being used, time zones, workload, live versus recorded lectures, social isolation and other issues.

The data and findings from the survey will help the task force make recommendations in the coming weeks.

“We are taking an evidence-based approach to virtual teaching — an emerging area for McMaster,” said Puri. “It is vitally important to gather feedback from members of the task force, incorporate the findings of the MacPherson Institute survey and others, and explore best practices from around the world while considering a blueprint for virtual learning at McMaster.”

The task force has already made a recommendation to the Provost and President and Vice Presidents that student, staff, and instructor mental health issues related to online learning and the ongoing pandemic, including stress, isolation, anxiety and motivation issues 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 task force expects to issue more recommendations, including offering best practices in virtual teaching to instructors based on its findings and research, after reporting back to the provost in early December.