COVID-19 Pandemic: Our First Chance to Be Bold Educators

My universities (McGill and Concordia in Montreal, QC, Canada), together with any other sensible university on this planet have closed, and cancelled lectures. In some countries like Canada, for two weeks. In some countries, like Iran, indefinitely.

Professors and university leaders are working hard to find ways to carry on, to keep our students busy, connected, and on track of their graduation.

I know that at Concordia, they are scrambling to activate our digital and tele-schooling capacity, create online courses, apps, digital examination rooms, etc, promising that e-classes will resume soon.

Personally, I think our governments and by extension, our universities’ response to the COVID19 has been inexcusably slow. But at least in Canada, it is not too late yet. I am grateful that WHO announced the pandemic on time.

Why? Because a student population of ~170,000 mostly young, in a small block of a dense city like Montreal, whose universities are wonderfully the hubs of our public transit, create the perfect opportunity for transmission of COVID19, undetectable, on the healthy bodies of the young students who do not get very sick with this to know they may be the carriers. Many of these students travel internationally, especially during the spring break.

In Canada, we are lucky because winter keeps inward travel low, our public health system makes it possible to find and care for the sick effectively, and that the vastness of the country creates better opportunities for social distancing–which seems to be the best hope of flattening the peak of the infection, avoiding the exhaustion of our health care resources. But the picture would have changed with a surge of spring break travel. It is good that we are closed.

But now, what do we do? Especially about international students who are paying high tuition fees and are stranded and away from the possibility of travel? Or about those who are paying student loans and need to graduate and go get a job, as soon as possible to start their lives? Or those who are preparing applications to graduate school? Or those who went home for spring break, and are now in quarantined countries or cruises and cannot come back?

Luckily we live in the age of information and communication technology, whose penetration in people below the age of 50 is ~100%.

Ironically, the screen addiction in youth, which many worry about, provides us a path forward.

I know first hand, that in Iran, whose schools and universities have been closed for a month already, people are developing and disseminating tele-courses, exam and tutorial apps, and even publish uplifting dance videos while in quarantine in response to morale-lifiting contests. If a country under sanctions, and strict ICT censorship can do it, so can we, in the heart of communication innovation, Canada.

The opportunity that I see here is for the universities and the Ministers of Education around the world to ask brave questions? 

1. Do we really need physical spaces to educate our students? 

2. Do we educate the next generation for reasons other than to prepare them for creating a better, safer, more sustainable, more prosperous and more peaceful future for themselves and the world?

If the answer is no, then

3. Can we take advantage of this unprecedented challenge (to our economy, manufacturing, health, education, etc.) in educating the future’s doctors, nurses, engineers, philosophers, basic scientists, inventors, social scientists, teachers, entrepreneurs, designers, builders, economists, artists, shakers, breakers, makers?

And if the answer is yes, then

4.  Why not use this historic biological event, this true LIVING LAB, which is challenging us to win against an invisible germ, which is uniting us across the world, even when it is closing up our borders and institutions of culture and education.

We must take advantage of this most unique learning opportunity that any of us can imagine during our life time. Last time that something like this happened was 100 years ago. We each have a chance to say we made new history.

Imagine, if we asked ALL of our students, who should stay home, to talk to us online, to self-educate and pass their class (no matter in what course, at which level) by submitting a proposal, an essay, an analysis, or an art work, that is  inspired by the context of the current pandemic, and informed by the content of the course they are trying to pass?

Really, why do we need to worry about filling galleries of physiology with 250 students?

When I was a student, attending these kinds of early morning classes w was really painful and I don’t even remember the face of the instructors-perhaps some underpaid ill-appreciated temporary lecturer. 

Seriously, why do we need to fill a physical class to teach IoT to 100 students? The course is about the Internet of Things?

I can imagine that to have to cancel those large anatomy classes for medical students is unfortunate, but those are not offered to 170,000 students. Maybe those classes can be postponed, or maybe they can be offered  under controlled circumstances.

To have to cancel physical laboratories or workshops (which is the most important reason for universities to exist physically) is also very unfortunate; but perhaps those classes can be postponed and offered at a later time, while the students of those classes take the opportunity to read, research, and formulate innovative experiments. To read more deeply leaves a more lasting mark, than to read quickly for preparing for a closed book exam. To search for an inspiration in the topic of course,  with respect to the reality of the pandemic that we deal with, will not be a forgettable experience.

I think part of the reason for our hesitation to embrace new methods is that we are afraid of losing the grip on the physical reality of our institutions. 

Many professors who run classes in reality are not the adopters of information and communication technologies, and cannot be bothered with the efforts to include them in their teaching–although the university offers them incentives to do so. When they put classes together, they hardly ask students to help the professor decide what is most pertinent to them, not just in terms of content, but also which modes of course delivery or examination help them reach their learning goals.

We would be surprised to know how much students know, and how much more they expect from us–than we have to give. 

We never ask, because to do so obliges us to act, and we are too busy to bother with changing anything, and too exhausted to run against traditional walls, no matter how much our universities remind us of their strategic directions: 

BE BOLD 

GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY 

MIX IT UP

TEACH FOR THE FUTURE

At least, no one ever asked me when I was a student. 

Ironically, one of my many job applications to positions whose title calls for an extra-disciplinary approach to the topic, was recently rejected by an old professor of mine, who was not pleased with the method of teaching I propose below. I must add that when I took his class, he was a new hire and inexperienced, and to compensate I found a more informative resource: Stanford’s online course packs! I advocate for teaching students to teach themselves, because I know that it IS possible and extremely rewarding.

Young voices do not have the power to break old patterns. But we must try.

So, while I don’t have the privileges to share my ideas with our institutional elders, I take advantage of ICT to share them with you, and I ask you to please share them if you agree, or shred them if you don’t. (via email)

I firmly believe that there is an unprecedented opportunity for us, to let students tell us what each course that they are taking should TEACH THEM. They are fantastically intelligent, and they will teach us, and surprise us, with their ideas. 

This is a one-time chance. We should try things boldly. We have little to loose, because we are already stuck in a pandemic corner.

In practice, this is mid term, so the students have learned enough basics and they are now gearing towards delivering final projects or writing final exams. So, we can now hand them the controls. Let us:

  1. Survey the students and ask them what they think the university should do
  2. Create a social network to stay connected, and encourage students to share digital lectures the find on any given topic [create a common repository for each course for post-crisis analyses.]
  3. Give the students, in whatever class, to submit a little reflection on how what they are learning in that particular class can relate to the current pandemic.
  4. Give everyone the opportunity to get an A+ in the class, if they submit a well-researched analysis or a proposal for an innovative solution.
  5. Pass everyone with only one requirement: find ONE problem that you wish to solve in the time of pandemic.
  6. Encourage students to take charge of their course completion, by defining the scope of their proposal themselves.
  7. Experiment with the idea of breaking free from the culture of “competition” towards a culture of “collaboration”.

Thank you for your time.

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