Students have been widely critical of U of T’s decision to return to in-person classes for the remaining winter semester. They have launched various petitions calling for the availability of hybrid options and have received support from the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), all of which have called for greater hybrid options.

U of T’s decision followed by students’ response has left professors planning to shift their courses back to in-person learning, while also attempting to accommodate students online. Some community members have both technological and pedagogical concerns about how this transition will work. The University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) and some professors have spoken out against offering hybrid courses.

UTFA’s response to hybrid learning demands

The UTFA has co-signed a COVID-19 Letter of Understanding (LOU) with U of T’s administration, which includes a section on expectations for hybrid teaching. 

UTFA President Terezia Zorić explained in an email to The Varsity, “The LOU means the Administration may not require, nor should they pressure, any faculty member or librarian to deliver any one section of a course both remotely and in-person.”

She emphasized the difference between sharing recordings of lectures after in-person delivery and hybrid models like dual delivery. “ ‘Dual delivery’ is the integration of multiple modes of course delivery, in person and online,” she explained in the email.

Zorić explained that safety is most important. “Our members –professors and librarians—continue to want to return to in-person teaching, librarianship, and other work as soon as it is safe enough to do so,” she emphasized.

Zorić added that the UTFA values choice. “Based on their pedagogical judgements, personal circumstances, and the time and resources available to them,” she wrote, faculty members should be able to choose the mode of delivery that they prefer and that makes most sense. 

She highlighted the inconsistency in the instructional choices and resources that are available to instructors in different faculties and classrooms across the three campuses. Zorić explained that this inconsistency illustrates the inequities in how different faculties and instructors experience teaching at the university. 

Beyond the disparity in available resources, Zorić wrote that hybrid model delivery can add significantly to an instructor’s workload. 

“It requires a faculty member or instructor to either double their teaching time (by teaching a class in-person and then separately teaching on a recording), or splitting — fracturing — their attention by trying to engage both with students in the physical room and with students attending remotely in real-time,” Zorić wrote. The latter, Zorić explained, requires resources that would generally not be necessary for recording lectures. 

Zorić wrote that even when an instructor is willing to accommodate students who are unable to attend in-person classes, professors may not always be able to do so without the proper resources.

Professors’ perspectives 

Associate Professor Franco Taverna, also a member of the Online Learning Academy (OLA)’s advisory committee, said in an interview with The Varsity that the hybrid model is perhaps “the worst of both worlds.” 

He believes, at least based on the courses he has taught during the pandemic, that professors should have a choice between in-person and online delivery.

Taverna cited his own experiment with the hybrid model while teaching an online course in the summer and he noticed that many of his students were living on or near campus. He told them that, if they want, they can attend the lecture in person. Taverna said that, out of 80 or so students, only around five attended in person.

Nevertheless, through his role in the OLA, Taverna is certain that there is no one correct solution for all professors — choice matters. “The university is amazingly complex and diverse and different course by course by course, unit by unit,” said Taverna. “You really must let the professor decide what is possible within those courses,” he added.

Most importantly, however, Taverna believes that decisions in this pandemic must consider safety. “You’re not faced with pedagogical choices, you’re faced with health choices.”

Sherri Helwig, an associate professor and the program director of the UTSC arts management program, who is teaching both a fully online course and an in-person course this semester, shared her experience navigating this new academic terrain. 

She wrote in an email to The Varsity that her D-level project-based course has proven more challenging than her fully online course that has more than 100 students. 

The trouble begins with just the choice of a classroom. “The room assignment has shifted several times because some classrooms that are somewhat appropriate in size [for COVID-19 restrictions] are inappropriate for pedagogical purposes.”

Helwig remains cognizant of how students have grown accustomed to the online classroom, and fears that students returning to campus for her D-level course will have trouble readjusting to the “competing noise.”

She agrees with Taverna that hybrid models are not the most appropriate means of delivery for some courses, but may be accomplished in others if professors are given adequate support. This largely depends on not just the course, but also the classroom and the technology available in it. Despite this, Helwig believes that “there is far more to high-quality hybrid teaching than equipment and technical support.” 

The big problem with hybrid delivery, as Helwig understands it, is the additional workload for professors in designing a course structure that provides equal engagement for both in-person and online students. “Ensuring that a course does not privilege those in the classroom over those joining remotely requires significant and distinct up-front planning for each set of students,” she explained. 

Student unions’ response

Student unions at U of T have consistently been asking for hybrid course delivery, despite the COVID-19 LOU signed by the UTFA and U of T. 

“The additional work of offering courses in a hybrid model should not fall on faculty and course instructors,” remarked SCSU President Sarah Abdillahi, in an email to The Varsity. She wrote that the responsibility to provide means of delivering course material in an accessible manner to all students should instead fall on U of T.

Abdillahi maintained the importance of students’ choice in returning to in-person classes. Nevertheless, she wrote, “We need the University to invest and commit to hiring the necessary staff and equipment to offer relevant classes in a hybrid model.”

UTMSU President Mitra Yakubi agreed that hybrid courses would create more work for professors. She explained that the university’s administration should account for the resources required to accommodate students, but instructors should be the ones to ascertain the particular mode of delivery suitable for their courses. However, the UTMSU had been advocating for hybrid options as recently as November.

The UTSU has also called for hybrid options, with the union holding a town hall in January to discuss these options with students and demanding the university offer hybrid options in an open letter later that month.