FAUW members, other instructors, and the many staff members who support teaching and learning at the University of Waterloo have gone above and beyond over the last two years to continue delivering excellent education to Waterloo students. The abrupt change to remote teaching last year accelerated positive innovations that were already in the planning stages. Together, we have learned new technologies, developed new digital assets, and experimented with new pedagogical approaches. Quickly adopting and adapting these approaches and innovations has required a huge effort by dedicated instructors and students alike.
This change has also come at a cost to many students due to technology issues, a sense of disconnection, and a lack of appropriate learning environments. For students who have not yet developed independent study skills and self-discipline, the switch to remote has been particularly difficult. As we prepare to return to on-campus teaching in the coming months, we have an opportunity to ensure that we carry forward the positive features and the lessons from this experience into a future of teaching and learning that is better for everyone.
These changes are far from over. The University—all universities—must significantly increase the resources available to enable instructors to deliver adaptable and universally accessible teaching.
One important indication of just how much work lies ahead is the draft provincial accessibility standards for the education sector, which propose a universal design approach to reduce the need for individual accommodations. In October, the FAUW Board, Council, and individual members provided feedback on these recommendations, through our representative on the University’s Accessibility Committee. While laudable, the recommendations and changes proposed will require significant resources, procedures, and protocols that have major implications for individual instructors and instructional support units such as the Centre for Teaching Excellence, the Library, and AccessAbility Services. These new guidelines also fail to recognize fundamental differences between university and K to 12 teaching.
In the short term, instructors received instructions from the University administration in November to design all winter 2022 courses to be adaptable to a wide range of scenarios, from instructors or students needing to quarantine, to short- and long-term cancellation of in-person meetings. For many courses, the work involved in preparing for these contingencies is significantly higher than normal course preparations, and this is the seventh term in a row that has required additional preparation or adaptation mid-way, or both. The toll this additional workload is taking on faculty, especially those who teach all three terms, cannot be understated. With the December 16 announcement that winter 2022 courses will now start online in a couple of weeks, many of us will spend our holiday breaks working on implementing these contingency plans instead of taking the time off we all need.
Finally, also in November, the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) released its own recommendations for ongoing access to remote education and flexible delivery of course content (download a PDF of “Flexible & Remote Options for Winter 2022 Courses” here). There are some excellent recommendations in this document, in line with existing thought on good pedagogy, and we encourage all faculty members to read and consider them. As WUSA notes, faculty members will need significant support to implement these measures. Instructors are content experts and teachers. We are not experts on accessibility and wellness, and we can only do so much without additional resources, including, as WUSA calls for, people with the time, skills, and expertise to provide accessible online learning materials to meet individual students’ needs.
To our students: We hear you. We might not agree with everything in WUSA’s recommendations, and our members certainly can’t put them all into practice next term, but this is an essential discussion and we look forward to talking about how to move ahead together.
To the university administration, and the government of Ontario: We believe that everyone at Waterloo cares about achieving the best and most accessible education possible. What’s possible will depend on the resources available. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed and continues to stress us all as educators. What is being proposed with regard to accessibility, through both the provincial government and WUSA, is neither workload-neutral nor cost-neutral. FAUW members will continue working very hard to uphold Waterloo’s academic mission and high standards, and we expect the increased and changing demands will be recognized, accounted for, and adequately supported.
To our members: We encourage you to read through WUSA’s recommendations (PDF) and give serious consideration to this student perspective. The Centre for Teaching Excellence’s tip sheet on Universal Design in the context of education is another good starting point. Tasks not requiring content expertise can sometimes be delegated; by all means, take advantage of this support if possible and request it if it is not offered. The University needs to hear what kinds of resources we need.
Our capacity to stretch, accommodate, and pivot without serious consequences to our own wellbeing is not infinite. As you consider changes to the design and delivery of your courses, on your volition or in response to demands from others, know that neither the integrity of your courses nor your own work-life balance should be sacrificed to the cause. Many of us will have work to do over the winter break to prepare for next term, but make sure you also take time to relax, spend time with your family and friends (safely), and enjoy yourself, so you can return in January at least somewhat refreshed and ready to continue doing great work.
Since the 2021 winter break is shaping up to be frustratingly similar to last year’s, why not revisit our run-down of how Board and committee members planned to make the most of their 2020 break? You might get some ideas for this year, especially if you’re making last-minute changes.