The virtual town hall with undergrads was held on April 6, 2020.

Overview: Undergraduate Town Hall

On Monday, April 6, College of Engineering Dean Suzanne Kresta and Associate Dean Academic Bruce Sparling held a virtual town hall meeting for undergraduate students.

The meeting, held via WebEx, provided undergraduate students an opportunity to ask questions about the college's transition to online learning, upcoming final exams, and the grading system that will be used for students’ final marks this semester.

Dean Kresta emphasized that the college recognizes students are facing extra stress and have been working hard to adapt. "We know online delivery is a lot of work. It's hard work on both sides of the table. So I just want to recognize that and send that out to everybody."

She also stressed that the college moved very quickly to move to remote operation because it was important to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our college community and beyond.

"I particularly want to give a shout out to all of the students who went along with cancelling grad banquets, which was a big thing to lose, but this is the kind of thing that results from those early decisions," she said, referring to an image that illustrates the benefit of effective social distancing.

"We really have a big impact on how many people get sick. I think that making good decisions really makes a big difference right now."

After providing an overview on the key issues, Dean Kresta answered students' questions on a variety of issues. The following is a synopsis of the discussion, edited for clarity and length.

If you have questions that are not addressed below, please don’t hesitate to contact Dean Kresta in confidence. "We’re very grateful to have the information," she said. "There's no judging going on, on either side. We're just looking for solutions."

Final grades

How did the college and USask make the decision to stay with the current grading system, rather than pass/fail?

"I want to assure all of our students that we took this decision very carefully and we tried to look at many different angles before we committed to a path forward. The decisions made were shared decisions and were made in the best interest of our students."

Regarding this decision, Dean Kresta has been in conversation with engineering deans across the country, with deans on the USask campus, with student leaders, with department heads and with associate deans.

The mental health considerations that guided the decision:

The college’s goal was to maintain stability where it could, because it realizes students are stressed and are working hard to adapt. 

“One of the reasons that we wanted to keep stability is to eliminate individual decisions in an environment of uncertainty. So having to decide for every course you’re in, whether a pass/fail or a letter grade is going to be in your best interest, is actually adding a lot of cognitive load in a situation where there’s a lot uncertainty.”

Allowing withdrawals until the final day of classes:

Very early on, the college recognized there are many students who may feel that the pressure of performance in the COVID environment is beyond what they can, or are able to deal with. The university provided the opportunity to withdraw up until the final day of classes (April 7).

This option was available to people who think they may not be able to pass their course – because they have not yet accumulated enough term credit to put them in a strong position going into the final, or because their life environment is at a point where they feel their best option is to withdraw. In this case you’ll have a withdraw rather than a fail on their transcript.

The benefits of having a final number grade:

If you’re continuing, if you’ve earned a pass, or are in a good position to earn a pass, a definitive grade is going to provide more information than a pass. “Nobody can know if you got more than 51 percent if you just pick a pass. So there’s not a huge win for anyone who’s going to get more than 51 percent.”

As someone who has reviewed transcripts from a hiring perspective, Dean Kresta said, “I would rather have information that someone stuck it out and got a 60 percent or a 57 percent and it was a term where there was a lot going on, than be left in the dark and then the best I can be confident of is a 51 per cent.”

Putting the grades from this semester in perspective:

In a hiring context, Dean Kresta says if she was looking at someone’s transcript, she would look at the grades in the term before COVID and in the term afterward and look for trends. If there is a big outlier, either plus or minus, she will explore that in the interview, asking the candidate about their experience and what they learned about themselves in that context.

The administrative drawbacks of pass/fail:

When people choose pass/fail for all of their courses, the college is unable to complete graduation lists, consider scholarship applications for next year, or provide information on academic standing.

If you’re concerned about facing academic action:

If you’re concerned you’ll get an academic action, when really you’re dealing with difficult circumstances, please remember that any of those decisions can be appealed, and any extraneous circumstances that compromise people’s performance are always reviewed. “There’s no need for you to be punished because of circumstances beyond your control.

“There’s a lot of good reasons for people to continue and get the information they need to carry on with their lives in the fall.”

We fully recognize everybody is experiencing extra stress and working to adapt, and we want to support you as you work through that.

Online exams

What the college considered in structuring online exams:

In developing the process for online exams, the college assumed the worst-case situation: that students may not have a stable internet connection; so for that reason, very few courses have any timed components in their exams.

Students will have 27 hours to complete what is designed to be a three-hour exam. That addresses time accommodations that some students may normally receive. It also addresses the fact students in isolation may be in an unpredictable living environment or have an unreliable internet connection, “so that as much as possible we mitigate those effects and set people up to win.”

Professors were given the opportunity to reweight their grade distribution, given the fact that all of the finals will essentially now be open book. These redistributions were approved by department heads.
If your professor is structuring their exam in a way that you feel is not following the protocol set out for final exams, please contact Dean Kresta or Associate Dean Academic Bruce Sparling.

How is the college addressing the issue of cheating on exams?

Each student must sign a declaration of academic integrity when they complete their exam. “People that choose an honourable path I believe are going to perform fairly similarly to how they performed in the past,” said Dean Kresta.

Across the country, what engineering deans are hearing generally is that students are afraid they’re going to fail and professors are afraid students are going to cheat and get all A’s.

“What we’ve decided to do is accept the circumstances that we’re in, do the best we can to have an examination that’s meaningful, that sets students up to have integrity in how they behave, and incentivizes people to continue to engage with the material.”

This is critical, so that students are prepared next fall to continue with their program.

After a professor assigns grades in a class, are they reviewed before they are submitted?

As always, the grades that a professor submits for each course will be approved by department heads and are reviewed by a leader in the college, so there are checks and balances. Any grade distributions that deviate dramatically from the norm will be discussed, as is usual practice.

In some disciplines, students are getting to keep their existing marks as their final grades. Did the college consider that option?

In these cases, most of the course work would have been completed already and providing a final grade now does not represent a significant change to the course requirements. Review was done on a course-by-course basis and issuing a final grade now was approved by department heads. It was not a widespread practice, however.

On a broader note, we were able to complete all of the core learning requirements for all of our courses; huge shout out to our lab technicians and our faculty for accomplishing this.

Do the remote exams meet Engineers Canada accreditation standards?

Yes. Our college is up for an accreditation visit for this year and Dean Kresta, who sits on the CEAB, assured students the college has followed the guidance from the accreditation board to the letter so students should not be concerned about this.

Will there be a special notation on transcripts re: COVID-19?

USask is still discussing what notation, if any, will go on transcripts to formally recognize that this term needs to be put in the historical context of the COVID pandemic. The college does not have an answer on this right now, but Dean Kresta said she appreciates the input she’s received from the people who have reached out to her via email with their thoughts.

Will the COVID situation affect how the grades of students on academic action are assessed?

Dr. Sparling says that at this time the college doesn’t anticipate any changes to its current process, but is waiting to see what the results of the semester are and if it needs to make any changes. “We are aware these are unprecedented times. We will be looking at every individual situation and taking that into account when we make these kind of academic decisions.”

How will this situation affect grade-based averages for continuing programs such as internships, masters degrees and admission to graduate programs?

Dean Kresta and Dr. Sparling are planning to keep an eye on the course by course grades and keep them within the bounds of what’s normal, so there are not huge outliers and distortions of information due to COVID. Once they have that information, if it turns out everyone is in a bad place, they will look at other measures, but for now they are monitoring the situation.

How will this affect the Engineering Professional Internship Program (EPIP) program? Will students be able to accept internship offers that have not been rescinded?

Yes, absolutely students can accept offers. Dean Kresta is in close contact with employers who are implementing workplace standards that will ensure people can work safely in essential service roles. Some businesses, which are busier because they are responding to COVID, really will need their interns.

Will there be any delays in applications for graduation and receiving transcripts?

At this point we are not anticipating any delays, but we have left the door open because the conferral of degrees does not necessarily have to happen at the date of the ceremony. We anticipate that this is going to go ahead.

All of the university and college operations have been moved to completely remote operation. Everyone is still working full-time and delivering on as many commitments as they can. All the usual university governance processes are continuing and are in place.

Remote Learning

Has the college implemented a standard of delivery for online course content?

While we can’t police all of the courses effectively, the college has made resources and recommendations available to professors. We do value hearing from students who have concerns. We understand that some students are concerned that they are being provided notes, but not a lecture. Looking at the big picture, the college is concerned that some students may not have the bandwidth or a large enough data plan to download all lectures as video delivery.

When the college moved to remote delivery of classes, about 90 percent of the instructors had no experience with online delivery – so those who are providing online lectures are doing so within a very tight timeframe.
Dr. Sparling reminded students that if they are having trouble getting access to material to finish their course or study for an exam, they should not hesitate to contact their instructor, in case it’s an oversight. Be sure to communicate if you’re having trouble so the college can help.

Will a standard be implemented for the fall so that students know what level of instruction to expect?

Dean Kresta said she agrees with the fact that teaching standards need to be maintained, but also stated that there is no one “magic bullet” that assures the best quality outcomes for learning and for education. Because of the diversity of courses across campus – including clinicals and design courses – sweeping requirements need to be treated with sensitivity to the complexity of the campus community. As much as instructors need to be flexible with students, this is an opportunity for students to learn flexibility and resilience themselves. So, in some courses you may continue to receive notes, and those will be complemented by online discussion periods rather than having recorded lectures. There are many courses in the College of Arts and Science where those discussions are central to the learning process and assigned readings are part of how learning unfolds.

“I don’t think we should impose a silver bullet that we think is going to work well for everybody. The diversity of the learning environment is a really important preparation for being able to work with different bosses when you get out into the workforce. So I’d like to leave that a little softer and a little more open than saying we’re going to legislate quality through requiring a particular format. I don’t think that will get us the outcome we’re looking for, but we certainly do want to hear from students when problems arise. We just need to keep the lines of communication open so we can keep everybody working together.”

A point to note, USask is finding that online delivery takes roughly three times as much work for academics.

Is the college looking at providing professors with education opportunities to broaden their skills in delivering their courses online?

Absolutely, that’s something that’s been happening roughly once a week already in the College of Engineering and there are ongoing supports through the Gwenna Moss Centre. Dean Kresta has emphasized to the university as a whole that this is something that needs to continue. Instructors need to build their skills in this area and ensure that the best possible delivery happens.

What planning is under way for the fall semester?

USask leadership received a discussion paper on this issue last week, so planning has started. The question is how to preserve the most important parts of the learning experience.

The university is a challenging context because students gather in groups of 100 to 200 people and sit in a room together for an hour where they breathe on each other, then once class is over they mix together in the hallways and then share a classroom again with a new group of people. And, every six weeks or so, they head back to their home communities, further circulating any illness they may have picked up at university.
Because of this, it’s difficult to have the kind of vibrant learning community that we’re used to. In talking about the fall, USask is considering how to operate safely and keep students progressing toward their degrees in a timely way.

Other issues

Will there be a convocation ceremony?

It looks likely that there will be a virtual ceremony, so that it can be held as usual in the spring. USask is also exploring opportunities for people to come back and attend an official convocation event in the future.

Will USask consider reimbursing students (potentially through a tuition credit) for recreation and/or transportation fees?

It certainly will be considered for the fall. For this term, the decision was made to continue to employ the students who support the PAC complex and the Huskies. When coupled with the loss of user revenue, this decision did result in a considerable loss of money for USask so the decision was made not to provide pro-rated refunds to students for the period at the end of the term.

I’ve been having trouble accessing AutoCad.

The college recognizes there have been difficulties with this and is working to find solutions. The professor is aware of the problem.

Will there be compensation for design projects that did not get fabricated and manufacturing labs that did not get completed? Will there be an opportunity to receive “make-up” time to complete projects at a later date?

For students that are interested in this opportunity, their professors would be thrilled to hear from them to set something up as soon as we are able to get back on campus – which will likely occur before the university is ready to resume undergraduate classes. We want to support this. Professors are actually as broken up as students are about having to leave projects uncompleted but it was decided that keeping people safe trumped the learning experience we wanted to see happen.