‘To do it all remotely is pretty impossible:’ Campus closings hamper hands-on school programs


With Canadian universities and colleges closed because of COVID-19, life has been particularly challenging for students in “hands-on” programs who have lost access to the labs, professional equipment and temporary co-op job placements needed for their studies.

“We don’t really have the tools to finish what we’re doing,” said Aidan Kyle, who is completing a final year of the motion picture arts program at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C.

Weeks ago, Kyle had been on track to complete work on his final projects and looking forward to convocation, as well as screening his film Dead Inside — a relationship tale told in the vein of the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead.

Aidan Kyle, second from left, was poised to complete his fourth year of the motion picture arts program at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C., when the coronavirus pandemic closed schools across Canada. (Submitted by Aidan Kyle)

But when campus shut down, Kyle was still a few shots short for his film. He not only lost access to cameras and other equipment, the wider pandemic closures effectively barred him from gathering with classmates to complete their jointly created projects. It’s been challenging figuring out how to continue in the interim.

“If you shoot footage on your iPhone or whatever, it’s not going to match with the cinema cameras that the school is kind enough to let us use,” he said. 

“And the actual process of screening in front of an audience that you can see, instead of on a Zoom call, that — obviously — we’re not getting.”

Maria Burguette, seen here before the pandemic, finished the final few weeks of the baking and pastry arts management program at Centennial College in Toronto via remote learning. (Submitted by Maria Burguette)

Though she’s working with a professionally equipped kitchen rather than a film set, Maria Burguette has faced similar issues. A student from Mexico City, Burguette just completed — via remote learning — her final few weeks of the baking and pastry arts management program at Centennial College.

Finishing a program she estimates as 70 to 80 per cent “hands-on” via online videos and demos was both challenging and frustrating, said the Toronto-based student. For example, her final weeks were to have included in-person workshops and sessions mastering advanced techniques for breadmaking, sugar art and chocolate work in her school’s commercial kitchens.

“It’s something that you need to feel, you need to see … it’s all about the texture, the smell, the looks. Consistency is everything,” Burguette noted.

“It’s hard to see it through web, like through a webcam or a phone or whatever electronic device you’re using. It’s nothing like being there and being able to touch it with your hands and to taste it and see all the process. It’s completely different.”

She’s also dismayed that though she and her classmates were not using resources, like pricey ingredients, or receiving the same hands-on experience they’d paid for, schools are generally not refunding tuition costs — something that hits her harder as an international student who paid a higher fee for her studies.

Learning at home was nowhere near the same, said Burguette. ‘It’s nothing like being there and being able to touch it with your hands and to taste it and see all the process.” (Submitted by Maria Burguette )

‘It’s like muscle memory’

Aspiring massage therapist Corry Ouellette is concerned about the quality of what learning at home has entailed and whether she’ll gain the experience required for her chosen profession.

“I hope that I’m going to get out of this what I paid for — and then be doing that profession at the end,” she said.

For Ouellette, who is just ending her first term of a fast-track program at Toronto’s Canadian College of Massage and Hydrotherapy, the past six weeks have underlined both opportunities and challenges with remote learning. She’s appreciated how some teachers have been creative in retooling curriculum typically taught hands-on into video sessions delivered via platforms like Zoom or Skype. 

Corry Ouellette, who is studying to be a registered massage therapist, found some of her teachers gamely adapted to remote teaching, while others didn’t. (CBC)

However, not all have figured out how to teach in new ways. “It takes time, takes some ingenuity. I’m not sure every teacher is going to possess that,” she said.

Learning a hands-on profession is critically dependent on in-person practice, Ouellette added.

“It’s like muscle memory. It just becomes natural. You want someone who is working in a health care profession … to be confident and comfortable,” she said. “I know that I’m only going to get that if I practise a lot.” 

Ouellette hopes her school will offer tutoring and makeup sessions “to guarantee that we have the skills that we need going forward into this career.

“I will push for it, that’s for sure, because it’s important to me.”

‘Creativity and collaboration’ amid COVID-19

The drastic changes the pandemic has forced upon the education system is one of the biggest challenges Anne Sado says she’s had to face in her 17 years as president of George Brown College, a school with a reputation for excellence in experiential learning.

“I can’t say that I know we’ve been able to cover everything in the same way that it would have been done in the lab,” she admitted, but she lauded her faculty and students for bringing “creativity and collaboration” into the forefront.

George Brown College chef Matthew Boban teaches a class from home. School president Anne Sado praised the culinary arts faculty and students for their creativity and collaboration in shifting to learning at home. (George Brown College)

For instance, the culinary school has pivoted to lessons and assignments delivered through videos and online conferencing. Early childhood education students have been supporting families with virtual story times, activities and other interactions. George Brown has even implemented a virtual welding lab, with a simulation that Sado had to try out for herself.

“We haven’t been able to follow through on all of our programs,” she noted, saying that some — like construction or mechanical engineering — will require students to complete lab work at a later date. But that is her intention, whenever public health officials give schools the go-ahead to reopen.

We will “make opportunities for students to come back and get access to those labs. What we can’t confirm right now is exactly when that will happen.”

WATCH | ‘Be innovative … resilient:’ George Brown president’s message to students:

George Brown College president Anne Sado sends a message to post-secondary students facing a radically different education system amid the coronavirus pandemic. 0:50

In the interim, George Brown is not accepting new students for the summer term, “because we just thought it would be easier for students who’ve already been in the program to continue, rather than to bring first-time students” in at this time, Sado said. 

Her team is also prepping scenarios that take into account a host of possibilities for the fall, from continuing online learning upfront and delaying hands-on sessions for later in the season to extending school hours to run labs throughout the day.

“We just actually spoke this morning about what can we do to get students volunteer experiences, other things that they can do, that they actually can gain skills and knowledge and experiences they’ll be able then to use with employers in the future, whenever that market does open up.”

‘To do it all remotely is pretty impossible’

But when campuses reopen, Nathaniel Winsor is wondering what they will look like. A third-year PhD student in the University of Toronto’s department of immunology, he typically spends 95 per cent of his time in lab research. 

Since his campus shuttered, however, “pretty much 90 per cent of my day now is what I would be spending 10 per cent of my day on doing two months ago.”

Though he spends time with online seminars, lectures, weekly research meetings and things like writing manuscripts and processing previously gathered data, “nothing can replace lab time,” he said.

“If you’re not generating new data, to do it all remotely is pretty impossible.”

Nathaniel Winsor, a Univeristy of Toronto PhD student in the department of immunology, typically spends 95 per cent of his time in the lab doing research. (CBC)

When he and his colleagues are able to return to the lab, they’ll be heading into small confined spaces: centralized rooms where, for instance, 10 people might be sharing equipment.

“Maintaining social distancing in those environments is going to be really hard,” Winsor noted.

“What is it going to look like when it does reopen? Is it going to be shift work? Is it going to be days on, days off?”

After receiving some questionnaires about how his work has been affected, Winsor believes university officials are still trying to take stock of exactly how the school can safely reopen.

“I know we’ll be back in the lab. I haven’t heard a date yet, but I know it’s going to happen. What that’s going to look like, I have no idea.”

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