Possibilities in Performance
Rather than centering on what can’t be done in light of the shift to online learning this fall, Jacqueline Warwick and her colleagues in Dal’s Fountain School of Performing Arts are choosing instead to flip the narrative. “We are finding the things that we can do now that we couldn’t or wouldn’t necessarily do before,” says Dr. Warwick, the school’s director. “How can we make this really remarkable?”
One way is by reimagining how students train and prepare for live performances, a central aspect of the learning process in the performing arts. In a typical year, the Fountain School produces four plays, an opera, roughly a dozen major concerts and dozens of smaller chamber performances—all featuring student performers. And while that production frequency will be scaled back this year, those performances that do go ahead will offer unique new learning experiences for students.
For instance, for its first theatrical production of the year, the Fountain School will be undertaking a virtual reimagining of Concord Floral, a 2016 Canadian play based on an Italian Renaissance classic The Decameron about a group of people surviving the plague. Although chosen before the onset of the current pandemic and originally envisioned for the stage, sound and set design and costume work will now be carried out remotely with students using tablets and phones to interact with each other during the performance. Dr. Warwick says audiences can expect a “meaningful and moving” production, which will now be livestreamed for audiences. “When the mold breaks, it’s terrifying. But then we get to make up new ways of being and make new strategies and plans,” she says.
Students can also expect exciting new learning opportunities through even more compelling master classes this fall. A regular component of the Fountain School curriculum (thanks to funding from the Fountain family), Dr. Warwick says holding the sessions virtually now expands the school’s ability to bring in people from performance hot spots such as Los Angeles and London.
In Dr. Warwick’s view, artists will be crucial in the months and years ahead. “This is an opportunity like no other to figure out, ‘How are we going to get through this?’ And I really do think artists are going to lead the way and our students are going to help us learn how to live in this new world that we suddenly find ourselves in.”
Value in the Virtual
How can we best prime students for life as business professionals? That’s the underlying objective in Carolan McLarney’s Business in a Global Context course, a large first-year class aimed at undergraduate students interested in business.
While the answer to the question naturally shifts from year to year as the world itself changes, 2020 brought about a more dramatic upheaval than most as the pandemic battered economies and reshaped the way business is done. Remote work became the norm for many businesses and organizations, a trend that seems to have stuck is some cases even after restrictions loosened and a way of working that could become the new normal in the event of future outbreaks.
Dr. McLarney says her course this fall provides an opportunity for students to hone their digital savvy to meet the needs of this new era, given that—like most other courses at Dal—it’s being taught entirely online. “If anybody can work anywhere in the world now, then if you are exceptionally good at doing remote work, the possibilities for you as an employee are endless,” says Dr. McLarney. “That’s what we’ll be trying to teach them.”
Adapting a course for hundreds of students, including a large contingent of international students positioned in different countries and time zones, was no small feat. Dr. McLarney made a point of incorporating both synchronous (happening at a specific time) and asynchronous (can be accessed anytime) elements into the course to allow students flexibility. She holds two live synchronous lectures each Thursday, which are then made available as recordings. Students are divided into smaller groups for tutorials, which this year are pre-recorded and available each Friday. And rather than office hours, students book individual appointments.
“I think in a way this move to online is going to make us much better for every student,” she says. “I speak very quickly, and for students whose first language isn’t English, I think it can be a little overwhelming. So, wouldn’t it be great if you could just go back a few frames or go forward or pause and make some notes? This will probably make my course much more accessible.”
What won’t change are expectations of students. They’ll still be required to give presentations, do group work, take part in a business simulation, present themselves professionally, and complete assignments on time—only now, they’ll do so virtually. Even an annual networking event that’s organized in partnership with Dal’s Management Career Services is moving online, with students being offered opportunities to drop into different rooms and meet representatives from various companies.
If this fall is done well across the university, Dr. McLarney says, it could reveal a major opportunity to grow Dal’s student population and equalize education. “If we get very good at this, then we can reach parts of the world and portions of the population who don’t have access to education,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be just remarkable?”
Prior to COVID-19, Dr. Jong Sung Kim’s toxicology lab in the Tupper Medical Building at Dalhousie was often buzzing with activity at different times throughout the day. Sometimes there’d be as many as 10 students and staff in the space at a time, carrying out a range of complex scientific work from injecting nanoparticles into human cells to analyzing blood samples.
Enter Dr. Kim’s facility now, though, and you’ll encounter a far quieter environment. This shift in climate doesn’t mean there’s less work going on, just that it’s being done in different ways. Students now work on a rotation, with a maximum of six allowed in the space at any one time. Masks are required when six meters distance can’t be maintained. And activities that used to be done in person in the lab, such as equipment training and logging lab results, are now often done virtually through online platforms.
The transformation of Dr. Kim’s lab began back in March when the university asked for the shutdown of all in-person research facilities, except for those doing work related to COVID-19. Like other Principal Investigators (PI) and their research teams across the university, Dr. Kim and his students wound down operations. But that didn’t last for long, as two weeks later they were approached by the Nova Scotia Health Authority and Dal to support testing the effectiveness of new types of N95 respirator masks that could help reduce Canada’s reliance on foreign suppliers.
Dr. Kim’s lab isn’t the only one at Dal that’s transitioned its focus to COVID-19. Industrial engineering researcher Peter Vanberkel’s health-care operations lab also pivoted quickly, tackling high-priority problems such as the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) in Nova Scotia, the return of elective surgical capacity in hospitals, and researching alternatives to N95 respirators.
“For students, they are working on really cutting-edge problems and working with teams that are highly motivated to address these problems,” says Dr. Vanberkel. “From that perspective, it’s a bit different. Research can have a slow pace, but with the pressures of COVID-19, we don’t have that luxury of a slow pace anymore.”
The primary change for Dr. Vanberkel’s students has been the shift from in-person observational work at hospitals to remote consultation. “Students usually have office time in the hospital a few times a week so they can see and observe and understand how things work. That piece went away. It meant doing business a bit differently. It meant we had to rely a bit more on being told what was happening instead of getting to observe it ourselves.”
Other labs across Dal, while not researching COVID-19 specifically, have had to adapt their protocols and best practices as well, ensuring that students can continue to build their research careers but in a way that’s as safe as possible.
Lab Coat and Goggles Not Required
This fall, most students in programs with lab requirements have seen those activities move to a virtual environment. Learning objectives have been modified to suit the new online programming, with resources enabling high-quality and comprehensive learning experiences for all. In first-year Chemistry, for instance, students get the feeling of being immersed in the lab through virtual 360 lab tours, where students learn the safety protocols they will need for future in-person courses. Students also take part in virtual, interactive experiments that enable them to make real-time observations, with an added emphasis on experimental theory, observation and data interpretation—skills transferable to all science and engineering fields.
“Lab modules are custom built, media rich, interactive, and accessible, with consideration given to clarity in colour schemes, font sizes and slide design as well as fully closed-captioned with downloadable audio transcripts,” says Jennifer MacDonald, senior instructor and first-year lab coordinator in the department.
Field trips have also gone virtual for some this fall. Mobilizing swiftly this past summer, Michael Young, a senior instructor and undergraduate advisor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, used drones, cameras and other gear to build 3D models of more than 20 field sites that include kilometre-long stretches of coastal cliff sections, tidal flats and rocky outcrops in hard to reach places. Ultra-high resolution zoomable gigapixel panoramas, videos of course instructors explaining field-site features, and more have created quality online learning experiences with added cool factor. “I want students to be able to interact with high-quality visualizations without the frustrations of low-resolution images or poor quality audio,” says Young.