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Letter: Dear TRU student, welcome to online learning

Editor: I was asked what I would say to a student who was nervous about studying at Thompson Rivers University this fall. My response came to me in the form of a letter, Dear Student, which I am submitting as letter to the editor.
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I was asked what I would say to a student who was nervous about studying at Thompson Rivers University this fall. My response came to me in the form of a letter, Dear Student, which I am submitting as letter to the editor.

It is a perspective on fall 2020 in university from a geology professor.

Dear TRU student;

I understand that you might be apprehensive about attending university this fall. Who wouldn’t be? We’re asking you to join us on what may seem like an adventure into the unknown and you probably have concerns. I can’t speak for the entire university, but I would like to share my perspective as a geology professor.

We are creating a new normal as the result of the pandemic and the university experience will be different, but that doesn’t mean that you will be getting a lesser education. In fact, the experience just might offer some advantages.

The good news is that one of the things you don’t have to worry about is contracting COVID-19 from school. TRU is taking a responsible approach to being open for education in a way that doesn’t put you in the position of risking your health in order to attend university. While I would like to be teaching in my classroom this fall, I am relieved not to be there during this pandemic.

This fall, we will be creating, with you, a remote teaching and learning environment. I am very excited and energized by the creative challenge of using the best information and communication technologies we have available to us to create a virtual teaching and learning space that is at least as engaging and interactive as the traditional classroom.

After all, the reality is we have the world of information at our fingertips via the internet and, as professionals, we are increasingly communicating and collaborating in a virtual environment with co-workers all over the world. It is time that we incorporated this reality in the way we offer education.

Don’t worry — you will still be meeting other students. For example, in my courses you meet others during remote lectures and small video-conference breakout groups during labs. I also have an open video-conferencing place where you can meet informally (like a Zoom café). I don’t know why, but in my experience teaching remotely at the end of last term, I found my students were more actively interacting in the virtual classroom than in the traditional setup.

I’m still holding regular video-conferencing office hours. But my students usually get in touch by email or text messaging to set up meetings and resolve issues. I tell my students, if you feel frustrated, please get in touch. This is particularly important in a remote learning environment.

Labs presented one of the most interesting challenges for us. In my profession (and I think this is typical), profs from throughout world have come together to address the challenge of remote teaching, especially for labs. We are working collaboratively and sharing our best lab exercises. In fact, I have not before seen faculty members discussing best teaching practices to the extent that we are doing now. In my classes, we are increasing our use of online simulations and I’m developing a series of virtual field trips and field exercises.

COVID-19 has brought about a change and, in my profession, I am amazed by the rate of change. By that I mean the rate at which new knowledge is developing, driven by a tight connection between new analytical tools and new discoveries. The ability to routinely analyze rocks down to the parts per million, detect an expanding number isotopes in minerals or use seismic tomography to image the details of Earth’s interior is all new since I was an undergrad.

I tell this so you will appreciate that what is really important to learn in university is how to learn — to be able to read and think critically, understand, synthesize, view problems from multiple perspectives and navigate the forest of information and misinformation that is on the internet and know how to distinguish one from the other.

While I have always had this focus on my mind as I develop and update my courses, because we are now working in a new environment where we are immersed in a complex digital space, imparting these skills to my students seems more urgent.

Finally, we will be engaging in this remote teaching and learning environment together. It will require us to be innovative, bold, flexible, adaptable, comfortable with uncertainty and, above all, forgiving. So, in the process of what I hope you were going to do anyway — that is, enter university or continue with your studies — you will be gaining these skills by experience. These skills, along with knowing how to learn and having the eagerness to continue learning, are fundamental to thriving in a changing world.

I look forward to eventually being back in the geology room with my students, but life goes on and we’re adapting as we move forward. In my opinion, you will not have a lesser education and it might even be a very interesting year to remember in university.

Dr. Nancy A. Van Wagoner

professor of geology

Thompson Rivers University