Dr. Ken Coates (PhD) is a Canada Research Chair of Regional Innovation at USask and a professor in JSGS. (Photo: Submitted)

The impact of COVID-19 on post-secondary education

The global pandemic demanded a quick response from the Canadian education system.

By Emilie Neudorf

Many are watching how this response will impact high schools and post-secondary institutions as they adapt to remote delivery. Among those watching is Dr. Ken Coates (PhD), Canada Research Chair of Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and professor in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (JSGS), USask campus.

Coates has done extensive research and writing on Indigenous affairs, resource development, post-secondary education, and innovation in rural Canada. He continues to study how students, graduates, faculty, and surrounding communities are affected by the response to COVID-19.

The pandemic has dramatically challenged post-secondary institutions and related economies, but it has also provided a unique opportunity to learn more about these systems and start on the path to improve them.

“I think the pandemic has really challenged us to take a very, very different approach,” Coates said. “And I think we have to figure out how to look at our own evidence, figure out what’s actually going on, and adjust accordingly. There will be some good lessons in all of this. We will learn how to do certain things differently.”

Before the switch to remote delivery, drop-out rates in Canadian post-secondary institutions were already concerning at a global level. Some Canadian institutions have released their drop-out numbers after the extended withdrawal dates this fall and were pleased to announce that drop-out rates did not rise as much as anticipated. Coates is eagerly awaiting more concrete information in December and January when the first term has concluded.

Coates describes how difficult completing courses online can be. The disconnection from campus activities and student resources would be challenging enough, but many students live in less-than-ideal conditions involving crowded households with poor internet connection. This can make it difficult to succeed. Students who are academically strong and/or highly motivated are less affected, but those who are going into their first or second year of post-secondary education may be struggling to adapt, through no particular fault of their own, save for not being well-prepared for the unexpected challenge of full online learning.

Those entering university for the first time are also not set up for success.

“I think we need to recognize that these kids had the worst Grade 12 experiences, I think, in recent Canadian history,” said Coates.

He said that this contributes to the possibility of the creation of a “COVID-19 Generation,” in which students who were in Grade 11, Grade 12, and enrolled at university at the start of the pandemic are experiencing vastly different educational experiences and a difficult transition to the workforce.

With all of this uncertainty, Coates urges post-secondary institutions to study the data related to student engagement and faculty experience that is readily available. Canvas, the learning management system currently used by USask and JSGS for online course delivery, collects data about how students engage with course material.

“We should be collecting that information … and talking about it in some very systematic ways,” he said.

In addition, institutions should be listening to their faculty, and make efforts to support faculty in their abrupt transition to online teaching. But the impact of remote learning goes far beyond the institutions themselves. As a consequence of remote learning, many students did not relocate to the campus.

Many small businesses are realizing the large number of customers that post-secondary education institutions and the tourism industry had brought into their communities. Coates is concerned about how small businesses will continue to suffer as a result.

“And I think it’s one of those things, where if nothing else, this whole experience gives us reason to look around and look again at where universities affect our communities in positive and constructive ways,” said Coates.

On the other side of the coin, Coates observes that “there’s a small number of places that are doing way better because they’re attracting a lot of people who have left the city … It’s always good to see the resilience of rural Canada.”