Bimodal backlash: Students, staff at U of O not a fan of teaching format

·3 min read
University of Ottawa students want a full return to class, according to the school's student union. (Ian Black/CBC - image credit)
University of Ottawa students want a full return to class, according to the school's student union. (Ian Black/CBC - image credit)

A coalition of unions representing students and staff at the University of Ottawa is criticizing the planned use of the "bimodal format" of teaching where professors teach an in-person class, while simultaneously teaching the same class virtually.

The Inter-Union Coalition of the University of Ottawa says it is aware of 444 courses scheduled to be taught in this format during the fall term, along with 535 in the winter term during the 2021-2022 academic year.

The coalition said bimodal teaching — which involves a professor teaching a group of up to 500 students in person at the same time, as well as a group of virtual students — could place excessive demands on professors and reduce the quality of education received by virtual students.

"The bimodal format is widely considered a form of experimental learning, and is more commonly used in smaller class settings and with a number of in-class teaching assistants so as to ensure that students attending remotely receive the same quality of education as those attending in person," the group said in a news release issued Monday.

Back to (virtual) school

The complaint comes as post-secondary institutions across Ontario take varied approaches to the fall semester.

Some universities like Queen's in Kingston and Western in London are preparing for a full return to in-person learning, while the University of Ottawa and Carleton University are planning a mix of online and in-person learning.

The Ontario government, meanwhile, is pushing for a fall semester with no capacity limits on in-person classes and activities.

Luc Angers, whose union represents more than 2,000 part-time faculty members at the University of Ottawa, said bimodal teaching requires professors to adopt two different approaches to teaching their material, which can be even more difficult for courses in the arts and sciences.

"Of course, we're able to provide for students that are going to be in the classroom," said Angers. "But for those that are going to be online, well, it's a different type of presentation that we have to come up with. It puts our members in a very, very particular and difficult situation."

It puts our members in a very, very particular and difficult situation. - Luc Angers, Association of Part-Time Professors of the University of Ottawa.

Angers said the university is offering minimal training to part-time professors despite the fact some will now be expected to master the technical aspects of virtual teaching in addition to developing their in-class programs.

"We feel [the training is] very, very minimal for the tasks that we need to do," said Angers.

Students want full return, student rep says

Armaan Singh Kheppar from the University of Ottawa Students' Union said students have reported negative effects on the quality of their education and mental health due to virtual learning, and they want a full return to in-person courses.

"In bimodal learning, students might not be able to engage fully with their professors and their peers," said Kheppar. "Online learning has also proven to foster this disconnect between the instructor and the student."

The coalition of unions wants the university to organize smaller class sizes and provide more support to those professors, teaching assistants and support staff expected to teach in the bimodal format.

"The [coalition] and its members are looking forward to a full return to campus once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, and are concerned that the increase in bimodal courses offered in the Winter 2022 term means that this poor learning format is here to stay," the group said.

Kheppar said he wants to see more in-person class sections opened up so more students can return to campus.

CBC News reached out to the university with a list of questions, but didn't receive a response by publication time.

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