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Embrace the current scenario as a motivator, rather as a temporary nuisance
Our goal this year is not to do the “best we can do” despite COVID-19, but to make a first attempt at what will become a permanent blended offering of our program
At University of New Brunswick Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering, we have perhaps an uncommon view on COVID-19, because we see it as an opportunity. Possibilities in remote geomatics education has been on our mind of a few years, and on those of others within Canada, as we have a significant capacity gap in surveying and many technicians or foreign professionals who could help to fill this gap if educational opportunities were available that could be pursued flexibility in their life situations. Thus, these are not new discussions for us, but COVID-19 has given a much needed push (and some resourcing) to evolve in this direction.
Our goal this year is consequently not to do the “best we can do” despite COVID-19, but to make a first attempt at what will become a permanent blended offering of our program.
As you also mention, we are not the first to talk about remote geomatics education, and it has even been implemented at University of Maine in the US, and University of South Queensland in Australia. We do not see remote education as a detriment. Rather, we believe that an eventual blended program can ultimately deliver educational objectives more effectively than a traditional, in-person only program.
Our major resourcing needs have only been partly technological. For example, we all now have decent webcam, microphone, and production setups at home. For our first year course, that focuses on introducing the concepts of surveying instruments, we have also rented a Leica MS60 total station (and cellular data plan) that can be remotely controlled by students while an external camera shows them its movements and a telescope camera shows them a user’s viewpoint. However, the greater resourcing requirement is in personnel. Despite most of our courses being technology mediated to start with, and most instructors already having some of the required technical skills and being familiar with video conferencing, we have all devoted significant time toward the conversion to remote teaching at the expense of other work. We have devoted even more time to this because we seek a permanent solution for remote delivery. We have also allocated the time of staff members to help with the transition, for example coordinating industry partnerships or facilitating online student community. This all happens at the expense of other activities, and we hope in the long term that these needs will be supported to allow a sustainable transition.
What could be the best strategies, and I will list three below. I am not going to include some things that seem more obvious to me like: ensuring faculty are trained in online education; providing sufficient resourcing; and making online education accessible with respect to things like time zones, students in different living arrangements with different levels of connectivity, and needs for academic accommodations. The following are some of the things beyond those fundamentals that I consider important.
1. Most important is to embrace the current scenario as a motivator for sustainable change, rather than treating it as a temporary nuisance to be overcome. In the long view, this opportunity can produce a stronger Geomatics industry in Canada. Integrity, creativity, and cooperation will be essential in realizing this transformation.
2. I believe that partnerships to enhance education in a remote context are essential to any effective solution. In our winter term surveying courses, for example, we are arranging for students to work with industry partners – some of the largest surveying companies in Canada have signed up to help – to complete field exercises. This is a model that has been working for a few years at University of Maine, and in our case has been met with enthusiasm by both students and the surveying community. Wellimplemented, it may provide a more relevant experience for students and be superior to the traditional teaching assistant supervised laboratories, simultaneously freeing up teaching assistants to assist with other aspects of the educations experience. Looking beyond our plans for this year, partnerships with colleagues from academia, industry, or government across Canada to share in virtual teaching would also be fruitful. In the long term, these could help to bring expertise and experience from across Canada to students in all of the programs and to share workload among institutions. All of these things must be carefully organized, but the potential benefit is immense.
3. I beleive, this year and going forward, the importance of student community should not be lost. Students serve as a support system for one another academically, personally, and professionally. This value could be lost in remote learning without daily in-person interaction unless it is intentionally maintained. Our students regularly interact over facebook in any academic year, but for this year we have involved the student leadership in facilitating online community and they are doing a tremendous job. This should be student led, and it will be important in our long term transition to ensure that remote students participate in student community as actively as those participating in-person.
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