COVID Communication: Academic Updates V

Hey Folks! I hope you’re doing well and staying strong through McMaster’s first-ever fully-online school term. Below you will find my academic updates for the month of October and November!

A huge academic topic I’ve been working on is with regards to MATH 2Z03 this semester. I have been approached with a growing number of emails regarding challenges being faced in this course with regards to course delivery, midterm delivery, and overall communications with course instructors. Although it may have taken a while for the faculty to properly address this issue, I am happy to say that this issue has (hopefully) effectively been resolved. After collaborating with our faculty and reaching out to the chair of the math department, students should be assured that more clear communications will be made on avenue, the midterm will be better adjusted for an online term, and assignments, if any remaining, will be properly spaced out to avoid high-stress situations.

Another important topic these days is proctoring. As you may probably already know by now, the Respondus online proctoring software has been approved for use throughout the university. Proctoring is allowing our instructors to ensure that students are acting with integrity during their assessments. Information regarding Respondus has been posted on the avenue login page if you would like more information. One thing that should be noted is that Repsondus has successfully undergone the UTS vetting process required for use within our university, which means it is compliant with privacy policies outlined by FIPPA. According to faculty, Respondus only looks at keystrokes, camera, and audio while active. Again, for more information, please see university announcements for more information.

That being said, I also acknowledge that proctoring can be incredibly stressful, and can still most definitely encroach on students’ privacy. As far as the MES goes, we do not support the use of proctoring softwares and we believe that they result in a sub-optimal testing environment for our students to do well in. After a conversation with the VP Education of the MSU, I can say with confidence that we have central university reps who are also opposing the use of these softwares in our courses. All of this considered, it should also be noted that very few courses within the Faculty of Engineering are currently employing the use of proctoring softwares, and we will do what we can to discourage these practices in the future. Students with extenuating circumstances or very good reason to not want to use proctoring software, such as a signed Non-Disclosure Agreement with an industry partner, should contact their instructors to discuss these circumstances and take the appropriate actions as outlined by their instructor.

An academic-related initiative that Alex Moica and I have been working on this semester is a potentially new solution for one-on-one tutoring services within our faculty society. This is one of the things I set out to do as VP Academic as part of my campaign platform. At present, the MES currently supports and subsidizes TutorOcean—a platform currently overseen by the Student Success Centre (SSC). We have found that these services could be improved from the perspective of accessibility, flexibility, and ease of use. Not only that, but our previous agreement with the SSC is no longer being upheld, as the SSC is no longer subsidizing our tutoring services. As a result, students will have to pay a higher rate for their first five sessions than they did before. Taking ownership of our own tutoring program would allow us the opportunity to increase awareness and accessibility of our tutoring services, establish a more tailor-made subsidization system, and connect in a way that best fits the needs of engineering students. After several discussions about potential tutoring solutions with our Tutoring Operations Coordinator Yuvi, we came across Nimbus Learning—a technologically based tutoring app. We found this service to be considerably robust and easy to use compared to our current tutoring options, and, after many meetings with the company, intended to proceed into a partnership with them. The heavy price tag of the service unfortunately meant that our motion did not pass at our Semi-Annual General Meeting. In light of this event, we are doing our best to gather more information and explore other options before we attempt a partnership with Nimbus again next year. For now, students can still expect our regular support for the TutorOcean platform currently run by the SSC.

The taskforce for teaching and learning has been working on recommendations for the impending winter term. With certainty that this semester will be online, we wanted to be sure to address the things we were doing wrong and right, so that students can have an improved experience next semester. As part of this committee, I was required to put forward three recommendations to be considered along with the rest of the committee’s recommendations. My three suggestions were as follows:

1. Incorporate a course incentive or communicate course investment in engineering community involvement and/or mental/physical well being. The bonus can be in the form of a grade boost, an alternate grading scheme, a participation/completion grade, etc.

  • A course bonus is guaranteed to be one of the most effective ways to persuade students to do something good like this for themselves.

  • A course bonus effectively communicates that the instructors and our faculty are making students well being a priority.

  • There are many ways this can be done, but I think it would be great for department instructors to collaborate and each prioritize a different component of well being, which could include healthy/consistent dietary habits, physical activity, time away from the screen, community engagement, skill building, etc. There are plenty of free walking/running apps, for example, that can help instructors keep track. Alternatively, the MES is willing to track these measures on instructors behalf, as we are already doing for IBEHS 1P10 and ENG 1P13.

2. Create a fund that will help students in financial need purchase the necessary tech required for tests and assignments, such as proctoring softwares. I have heard this is being done at UWaterloo and I think it is worthwhile to consider, budget permitting.

3. Have each department/undergraduate level decide on 3-4 platforms they are using for their term and make explicit choices on what each one will be used for. Within each platform, decide how information will be presented and try to make things similar where possible. An easy example of this is where the course syllabus goes: does it go under the content tab, or the course overview tab? Being consistent will ease students stress and help them navigate things more easily.

Runner up to these recommendations are:

  • Incorporate breaks into all course sections that occupy more than 50 minutes of students' time. For every 50 minutes of allocated time, students should have 10 minutes of break time.

  • Incorporate participation/check points into lecture: it is extremely hard to remain focused for the duration of a lecture, and having polls or some sort of activity for students to assess their understanding of material intermittently may help keep students on track.

These suggestions will, of course, be considered along with all of the other recommendations made by the committee, so don’t worry if there is an issue left unaddressed above. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the most recent task force meeting so I am unfortunately unable to inform you of other recommendations put forward at this point in time.

From a curriculum and policy standpoint, the Undergraduate Curriculum Policy Committee began and finished these past two months. As the student representative and voting member on this committee, I was responsible for reviewing curriculum changes and ensuring that they do not hold any negative implications on the experience of our students. Before most meetings, I had the opportunity to consult students from different streams and programs on our team. I used the feedback provided by these individuals to inform my position in each motion and vote accordingly. Truthfully, I did not come across any detrimental changes to students’ curriculum. The major challenge this year was fitting our new design courses: ENGINEER 2PX3 and 3PX3, into each stream and program in engineering, excluding iBioMed programs.

As you may or may have not heard yet, but in order to provide students with more rest and time to recover after a long online semester, the University will be delaying the start of the winter semester to January 11, 2021. Do not worry, the semester will still finish at the originally scheduled end date, at the expense of a condensed exam period. Seeing that many exams have been removed or changed to a take home exam, the exam period can easily be shortened without putting students in difficult situations.

An important thing coming up is our annual MacLAB fund! Department and program reps will be reaching out to our faculty for proposals on new lab equipment to fund and develop. For years, this fund has used the generous support of our engineering students to purchase all kinds of equipment used in our courses, extracurriculars, and public lab spaces. If you have ideas for any new equipment you may want funded, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me and I will connect you with our MacLAB chair.

That’s all I have for now! Thanks for your patience and time everyone! As always, if you have anything you’d like to talk about please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at anytime, or come out to my office hours! (Tuesday at 9:30am and Thursday at 11:30am EST, links on our website).

All the best, and good luck with the rest of your term!

Andrew D’Elia

B.Eng.BME, Level III

VP Academic, McMaster Engineering Society