COVID Communication: Academic Updates VI

Hey everyone! Welcome back to Academic Updates. I hope you have been doing well and found enjoyment in the winter break as well as the winter reading week, you surely deserved it!

This edition of Academic Updates will cover some new information that has surfaced in the months of January and February. Unfortunately, the last few weeks have been jam packed for academics, so getting out these updates has been tough. Nonetheless—I am happy to share what I have! Let’s begin!

In the past few months, I have heard various concerns from first-year students regarding the second year stream allocation process. Given the online delivery format used this year, many students feel that grades do not hold as much integrity as they normally would, and thus should not be dictating the allocation of students in this program. I agree with this statement for several reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that cheating is, quite frankly, easier than ever and likely to skew students’ grades upward. Those who choose to cheat are at an inarguable advantage to those who choose to remain honest in their studies and their work. Second to this is the fact that in this online environment, the sharing of information such as advice, study resources, mentorship, and other helpful things has the potential to be highly disproportionate among students compared to other years. The lack of contact between first and upper year students has surely had consequences for many students, and the few who do have the privilege of getting this help are not in a well-equipped position to share this information to others’ benefit. This again leads to unfair advantages of some students over others. While I consider networking and the ability to seek out resources a skill that should be rewarded, perhaps even through a spot in a specific level 2 program, the challenges of this year render these ideas and measures of aptitude extremely inappropriate.

In response to these concerns, I held a town hall meeting with a number of first year students, where we discussed this problem as well as several preliminary solutions to them. The issue with such a complex problem is that it is difficult to identify and distinguish those who cheated from those who didn’t, and unfortunately, one grade says no more than any other grade on a transcript, so navigating this is by no means an easy task. Solution ideas included a supplementary written piece or portfolio that could be used to strengthen students’ applications to second year streams. This would be entirely optional, but would help students convey their deservedness for a specific stream should they choose to participate. The goal of this solution would be to help ensure that students who worked hard for their marks would be rewarded for their efforts, and to prevent those who cheated through first year to take a spot in a program they didn’t earn. In theory, only those who would be willing to put in that extra effort would benefit, giving an advantage to those who put forward honest, hard work. Of course, this solution isn’t perfect, but the idea was there… For the sake of being concise, I will not unpack all of the flaws in this system here and now, but trust that we know that they exist.

I took both the concerns of the first years and the potential solutions to our Associate Dean Academic, Dr. Hranilovic, last week. Needless to say, the faculty is well aware that students are feeling this way. Unfortunately, however, the second year program allocation process will remain unchanged. The primary reason for this is that this is the only way to create a completely level playing field that does not further exacerbate the disproportionate access to students resources, and time. Moreover, it would be inappropriate to change the process that students agreed to upon their application and subsequent acceptance to the engineering/iBioMed 1 program. Such a change could only be made for future cohorts who have yet to apply or accept their offers. That being said, second year program allocation will be based on a competitive GPA system. In response to the pandemic and over-enrolment, more seats will be made in our popular streams where possible. Students are encouraged to come to me or their instructors if they feel particularly passionate about this issue, or have extenuating circumstances through which they believe that they are at an unfair disadvantage. While I don’t necessarily believe that the sole use of GPA is a good idea, I am hesitant to present a better solution for fear of instilling bias or inequity in this process… please, talk to me if you have any thoughts on this. I’d be happy to speak about it.

Another thing on the agenda this month is a rather disruptive curriculum policy change! From this year onward, all four direct entry undergraduate programs within the Faculty of Engineering, iBioMed, Engineering, Comp Sci, and B.Tech, will require a supplementary application as part of the admissions process. Students will need to complete a video interview through Kira Talent. This supplemental application was previously required for iBioMed and Engineering, so don’t worry, it won’t be completely fresh! If you have any questions about it let me know. The motivation behind this change is to adapt to the growing number of applicants for each of our programs and to give students the opportunity to be considered by more than just their GPA.

Other updates this month include discussions on what next fall will look like and what the best practices should be for it. It has not yet been announced by the Vice President and Provost whether or not fall will be in person or online. If I could hazard a guess based on these conversations, next fall will likely be online—with the option to engage in hybrid-style classes. My agenda in these conversations has always been to ensure that all of our students, and their unique circumstances, are carefully considered before any decisions are made. This means that if, for example, a single course is being offered in a hybrid format, an out-of-province or international student will not be required to move across the country (or the world) to attend that one 3 hour session every two weeks. Should a hybrid-style be offered, I will be advocating that a fully-online option is made available for students who encounter circumstances that would make it difficult for them to attend in-person classes. Simply being uncomfortable attending class in the middle of a pandemic is a valid and important reality many students will share, and the university should respect that.

The university has also made a push to remove McMaster emails from google and integrate fully with Microsoft 365. I am not a fan of this change and we are doing what we can to find ways to voice our opinion on it. As of now, students will have to move all of their data off of google drive sometime in the spring/summer.

Well, that’s all for now folks! Thanks for your time and attention. I hope that these updates have been insightful and I hope they inspire the same passion for advocacy in you as they do in me. Should you have any questions, comments, or concerns, or simply want to talk about academics/MES affairs in the coming year, please do not hesitate to reach out.