As Manitoba post-secondary schools plan for e-learning for the foreseeable future, the future of hands-on programs and practicums remains uncertain.
Students say in-person instruction in studies ranging from plumbing to health care is irreplaceable, making them question whether their courses will remain intact come fall — and even if they do, if they’ll still want to enroll.
Earlier this week, the University of Manitoba announced its 2020 fall semester will take place online. The term will be extended into early 2021 so students can engage in a period of in-person activities in January, should it be required for their courses.
The University of Winnipeg, Red River College, and Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology are also gearing up for indefinite e-learning. The University of Saint Boniface and Brandon University have yet to announce fall plans.
"There are a lot of courses that have on-hands training, like in carpentry and woodworking technology, students have to be on campus and build something," said Yash Patel, president of the Red River College Students’ Association.
"Students want to know: will all programs be offered?"
RRC spokesman Conor Lloyd said Thursday the school’s plans are "as firm as they can be during a pandemic," and alternative delivery planning is underway.
There’s a possibility Red River might be able to offer some hands-on learning, he said, but it will depend on public health advice and different programs.
While instructors are getting creative by uploading lecture slides and hosting video lessons, practicums, an integral part of many programs, have also been suspended, owing to COVID-19 restrictions.
Harleen Kaur was finishing up her first year in the early-childhood education program when the daycare she was scheduled to do her practicum at closed its doors.
"We’re all so frustrated staying at home that we just want to go back to our normal lives. COVID-19 has destructed our lives. I just want to go back to school, have my practicum… I just want it to be normal soon," said Kaur, 19.
She ended the winter term with pre-recorded lessons from instructors; Kaur said she prefers in-person classes so she can engage directly with peers and instructors.
As for the practicum experience, Kaur said it’s invaluable: she can work with young children, learn from mentors and being an international student from India, learn how Canadian daycares operate.
On the now-virtual MITT campus, instructors are already engaging students in typically hands-on lessons via online meeting platform Zoom. In the culinary arts program, students are learning knife skills via one-on-one sessions with chefs and making three-course meals at home.
David Noorden, who’s helping lead the college’s online transition, said instructors are getting creative, but he recognizes there are limitations. No decisions have been made about whether any MITT programs will have to be suspended in the fall.
"The classroom is a really important place for students; the classroom is the great equalizer," said Brenden Gali, chairman for the Canadian Federation of Students — Manitoba. Without it, reliable internet and home distractions may complicate learning for students, said Gali, who studies English at U of W.
At the same time, administrators say students likely won’t see tuition fees change because e-learning comes at a cost. The province is also reducing operating grants, citing the need for the public sector to find savings to support the front-line fight against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the prospect of an online semester has left students such as Gali wondering if they’ll take a break from school in September. English courses can take place online, he said, but peer work and intimate discussions aren’t the same.
"Everything’s more clinical on a digital platform," Gali said. "There's a formality to the screen."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.