Enrolment is up at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Williams Lake with many of the students taking classes from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Associate dean Bryan Daly said the practical components of the trades and nursing programs are being delivered face-to-face while the theory portions are being done online through alternate delivery.
“Fortunately enough with the campus the way it is set up, with those programs that are running on site, we are able to segregate them in terms of separate entrances, separate washrooms so the amount of co-mingling is absolutely minimized,” Daly said.
Alternate delivery depends on the course and the student, said Reta Langlands, interim campus co-ordinator.
“Our entire TRU catalogue is open to Williams Lake and surrounding community students to take courses that might not necessarily be offered in Williams Lake,” Langlands said.
Daly said students have the same access to education as someone might have in larger centres.
Some of the challenges include internet access for people living outside of communities and students needing computers.
To help meet the computer demand, TRU Williams Lake has kept the campus open through the pandemic.
There are 20 laptop computers for student use and another 24 will be made available.
“We will be able to accommodate students with temporary loaning of computers for a weekend,” Daly said.
Langlands said it will be interesting to see how campus engagement evolves this fall because in the spring the response to the pandemic was ‘so new.’
“A lot of students stayed away and thought they could figure out their courses on their phones, not realizing they needed access to a computer,” she said.
Moodle is the main program staff and students are using, something that was being used before the pandemic.
“When COVID hit us the faculty here just transitioned without skipping a beat,” Daly said. “They already had that experience of working with remote students.”
Some of the staff are still working from home, and appointments for students are done over the phone or the internet, unless a student doesn’t have access to either.
“There are even more support systems in place because they can access us from home,” Langlands said.
Kathy Lauriente-Bonner is in her 14th year teaching at TRU Williams Lake and this fall is delivering two courses from her home in Riske Creek.
“I’m actually a half-time teacher and a half-time counsellor and I’m doing both jobs from home,” Bonner said.
She meets once a week for three-hour virtual classes for each course.
Using the Moodle platform she houses the material she uses for teaching.
“It is kind of like a little closed web page — you can only get in there if you are a registered student or an instructor. Assignments are in there, power-points and links to videos.”
When the pandemic unfolded in March, she was teaching one course at the time and it happened to be a course she’d taught previously through open learning as a fully-distanced version.
“It was just dumb luck. I looked at the modules we still had left to cover and e-mailed them to my students,” Bonner said. “The students were great — they plowed through it and got it done.”
This September everyone has had to figure out the most effective way of delivering content and doing student evaluations in a virtual year, she added.
Her biggest focus has been to create a positive student experience.
She’s taken distance education courses at different times and had experience as a student — what she liked and didn’t like.
“I’ve been trying to capitalize on some of the fun things you can do in a virtual setting. Yesterday morning — I asked my students ahead of time to do a pet show and tell — at the head of the class everybody had their pets sitting on their laps.”
There were lots of cats and dogs, two chickens, a guinea pig, gecko and a frog, she said, chuckling.
Having a show and tell did not take up much time but it was fun and Bonner said she’s been transparent with her students because she knows it has been difficult.
“Everybody has been really patient. There have been some connectivity issues and they are getting resolved for the most part.”
Pat Biblow, administrative co-ordinator, said she actually hired a new biology professor who is teaching from Toronto through alternate delivery for the nursing program in Williams Lake.
“It was interesting to watch because when she came on board there were so many supports added to help her get set up,” Biblow said. “She came with experience in various platforms and was up to speed and within two days of being hired she was teaching.”
Biblow said they have one IT person who has been busy helping everyone through the transition.
Daly, who came out of retirement, worked for many years at TRU and said changes at academic institutions normally take a very long time.
“The amount of change that’s taking place right now is tremendous,” he said. “It’s knocking all our socks off and I’m really impressed with not only the folks here on campus, but the larger mother ship — TRU — to get all hands on deck and start going in a new direction. It’s been amazing.”