“The university was asking us to do the impossible, and we had five days to figure it out.”
That’s how Dr. Fran Walley (PhD), associate dean (academic) in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), remembers mid-March when classes went from in-person to remote delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a seismic shift “but the university moved extraordinarily quickly, and the transition faculty made was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire career.”
Walley herself was teaching a second-year soil science class. On the last day she was allowed to be in the building, she recorded a lecture to an empty classroom “while I was trying to figure out how to do the rest of the course.” Forced to adapt to the online environment, “I learned more technology over that weekend than I’d learned in the past 10 years.”
The technical skills required to deliver courses remotely varied, she said, but colleagues helped colleagues, and both the college and university mobilized tech support for instructors very quickly.
“I’m glad I was teaching. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have appreciated what my colleagues were going through,” she said. “What we realized is that when you’re recording a lecture or a voice-over on a PowerPoint presentation, every word you say has to be worth the effort of listening for students.”
There is no way to recreate the energy of a full classroom when recording lectures from, literally, the kitchen table, Walley said, so it took extra thought and effort to create online lessons that kept students engaged. And missing the last in-person lecture was the most difficult.
“We all felt weirdly cheated at not having closure with our students because we still had important things to say. I thought I’d see these 120 students through to the end of the term, so it was a bit of a heartbreak. There’s something so important about that final lecture.”
In addition to completing courses and assessments, Walley and her colleagues also had to consider research. No new research projects were started after the college went remote, but very careful management of building access ensured plants were watered, animals and poultry were tended and microbial specimens were maintained.
“We had to find the balance between ensuring the research engine continues to run and students get an education without putting anyone at risk. Everything requires careful thought but we also had to move quickly.”
The college did a survey at the end of the term to capture the remote learning experiences of students. It revealed one stark reality: “Their issues with online delivery often came back to rural internet service, and I’m not sure any of us fully appreciated what students were up against.”
From his parent’s farm outside Lacombe, Alta., 2020 college graduate David MacTaggart agreed access was a problem.
“The internet here is not what it is in Saskatoon. Live-feed videos often didn’t work very well,” he said, adding that instructors were very accommodating working with individual students to find solutions.
Deep into the final year of his bachelor’s degree when the pandemic hit and classes went remote, MacTaggart, who described himself as “someone who enjoys moments of being under pressure,” said he quickly vacated his USask residence room and returned to Alberta. There, he set up a “very cozy” work environment on a folding work table next to his bed.
“My family gave me the space I needed to work but, talking to other students, many were really struggling living in apartments and working in common areas. Life as a student is generally pretty regimented by class schedules but all of that was taken away, so I tried to think in small blocks of time. That kept me grounded.”
MacTaggart set up a schedule for course work but also enjoyed little breaks to scratch the dogs’ ears or help with farm work.
“I don’t think I was more efficient doing online courses but they always talk about being balanced as a student and this is the first time I feel like I’ve lived that out.”
Through the end of classes and final exams, MacTaggart said it was obvious “instructors and administrators really cared about the well-being of students. I tried to spread that message, that they were doing everything possible to make the experience the best it could be for students.”
He has now returned to Saskatoon part time to do field work for his master’s program, which began in May with the forage breeding team. Thinking about the coming year, “you have to be OK with uncertainty, and I’ve struggled with that.”
“My advice for students going into the fall is to reach out to students and instructors in your program,” he said. “With no social events for students, building your own bubble will be key to managing living away from home, but also for your emotional, mental and academic success.”
With the fall and winter terms online, Walley is seeing enormous effort and creativity as her colleagues work to prepare courses “that are as good as but different from the regular classroom experience.
“I think we’ll come out of this better educators,” she said. “This has forced us to think about what’s important, what students need to know, and how we’ll know students get it when we don’t have that in-person connection. It’s opening us up to new opportunities and new thoughts about our own practice.”
When the Saskatchewan Health Authority put out a call early in the pandemic for supplies to protect front-line workers, Plant Science Professor Dr. Martin Reaney (PhD) teamed up with three local companies to formulate and produce hand sanitizer right on campus.
Reaney and his colleagues used the College of Agriculture and Bioresource’s Bioprocessing Pilot Plant to produce up to 400 bottles of sanitizer a day until the process was transferred to a local firm for large-scale production in early April.
“There’s no other place where this could happen in Saskatchewan,” he said.
The process was exacting and required the expertise of researchers, specialized equipment and analytic capabilities all available at the university. Reaney’s team and campus collaborators plan to undertake related research on Saskatchewan-grown natural products to make better hand sanitizers.
Answering the Call
With the University of Saskatchewan shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an effort made to provide support where it could to the community, in particular the health-care sector.
Across campus, store rooms and labs were searched for personal protective equipment (PPE) that could be used by those on the front lines of the pandemic. The College of Agriculture and Bioresources alone donated 39 cases of gloves, 600 N95 respirators, and more than 1,400 surgical masks, along with isopropyl alcohol, lab coats, face shields and goggles.
Agriculture, Food and COVID-19
The global COVID-19 pandemic has had consequences that reach far beyond human health.
On April 29, the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics published a special issue to take a preliminary look at how the situation has affected Canada’s agriculture and food sectors, and what the long-term implications might be.
Three faculty members from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources contributed papers to the journal. In her article “Food supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Jill Hobbs (PhD) did an early assessment of the implications of the situation for food supply chains and supply chain resilience.
“Agriculture, transportation and the COVID-19 crisis” by Dr. Richard Gray (PhD) assessed disruptions in, and new demands for, transportation services, and how they might affect agricultural supply chains.
Also, Dr. William A. Kerr (PhD) looked at how governments reassess food supply chains that stretch across international borders in his paper, “The COVID-19 pandemic and agriculture: Short- and long-run implications for international trade relations.”
Agknowledge, December 2020