U of T designs world-class academic experience, offers support to students amid COVID-19

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More than 100 educational technologists, along with U of T faculty and staff, are working to ensure that some 6,000 courses offered in the fall semester offer a high quality academic experience, both in person and online (photo by Diana Tyszko)

The University of Toronto is taking steps to ensure the upcoming fall semester offers a high-quality academic experience while doing everything it can to support domestic and international students affected by COVID-19. 

With an increased focus on online learning and virtual engagement, U of T is preparing for a fall semester that includes a mix of virtual and in-person instruction across thousands of courses – all while taking steps to ensure students’ health and safety.

It is also working to make sure all the necessary student support services, co-curricular activities and community-building opportunities are available to students who find themselves studying remotely. 

“We want to reassure students that U of T is committed to providing a top-notch academic experience, regardless of whether they are in a classroom, in a lab or at home,” said Susan McCahan, U of T’s vice-provost, academic programs and innovations in undergraduate education.  

“The university has made significant investments in its virtual learning opportunities and educational supports – and there will be plenty of opportunities for engagement, both on campus and online.”

While some students have called for universities throughout the post-secondary sector to lower tuition fees during the pandemic, McCahan stressed that U of T puts as much effort into designing and delivering its online courses as it does in-person ones. She said more than 100 educational technologists, along with many U of T faculty and staff, are working around the clock to ensure that some 6,000 courses offered in the fall semester are equipped to offer exceptional online and in-person academic experiences. 

McCahan added that delivering such high-quality instruction requires major investments – from the purchase of new technologies to the expanded acquisition of licenses for learning and communication software – and that tuition fees help pay for the additional technology and resources. 

The fees paid by international students, meanwhile, also help pay for specialized services such as immigration advising and language assistance, according to McCahan. The university does not receive provincial funding for those services, but they will be crucial during and beyond the pandemic, she added. 

“We know students are going to need assistance with this transition, and we want to make sure we have the resources on hand to support them in their learning,” said McCahan. “So, it’s incredibly important that students partner with us in that endeavour.” 

To that end, the university has put together a resource page on the technical requirements that students will need to access remote or online learning – everything from operating system and internet connectivity requirements to recommended accessories such as headphones and scanners. 

McCahan said U of T students can expect a full range of academic services to be available online this fall. That includes access to learning strategists, writing centres and teaching assistants. “All these substantial aspects of the course experience are part and parcel of students’ learning experience, and a part of the cost of delivering academic activities,” she said. 

Similarly, Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost, students, said student support services will continue to be available to all students in a virtual capacity.  

“Since March, we have been offering our student services through various methods, including in-person, on-line and by phone, and we are committed to providing you with the support that you need through accessibility offices, our career centres and student support services,” she said. 

Co-curricular and social activities that are paid for by incidental fees continue to be offered, with Welsh noting a high uptake in these activities by students. 

“We offer a range of exciting athletic, co-curricular and community-building programs to our students that are designed to be available no matter where you are in the world, and engagement in these online workshops and activities has been high,” said Welsh. 

“We see this as an encouraging sign that the activities and supports we are providing are resonating with students, and we will continue to provide and expand these offerings as we head into the fall.” 

That said, certain non-academic ancillary fees have been reduced in some areas for the summer semester and the university is exploring appropriate fee structures for the fall, according to Welsh. 

She added that U of T remains committed to providing financial aid to students affected by COVID-19. 

“We are going to continue to have emergency bursary funds available for undergraduate and graduate students who incur short-term expenses due to COVID-19,” said Welsh. “We know that as we transition into the fall, students may encounter unexpected financial need, and we are here to help them.” 

U of T has so far provided more than $5 million in emergency bursaries to students facing unexpected expenses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also reduced the residence fees owed by students who moved out early. The unused amount showed up as a credit on the ACORN system and can either be refunded or applied to other outstanding fees, according to Welsh.

Welsh encouraged students facing financial hardship to visit the Funding Opportunity Directory. Undergraduate students can also apply for emergency bursaries with their colleges and divisional registrars, while graduate students can contact the School of Graduate Studies to learn more about financial assistance opportunities. 



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