Uniquely Positioned to Pivot | Yorkville University’s COVID-19 Response Story

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May 8, 2020

When the COVID-19 crisis hit Canada, no university in the country was more uniquely positioned to pivot from on-campus classwork to online instruction than Yorkville University.

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Established as an online university in 2004, Yorkville already had the framework in place to make the transition to a remote synchronous delivery model of instruction as seamless as possible for its growing roster of on-campus Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) and Bachelor of Interior Design (BID) students.

“It is not that the crisis started, the pandemic started, and we said, ‘Okay, what to do now?’ We already had something…and we moved to that model from a position of experience, from a position of strength,” explained Dr. Muhammed Kabir, the Campus Provost/VP Academic for Yorkville University’s Ontario Campus.

That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Daren Hancott, Kabir’s counterpart in British Columbia.

“I think we’re probably leading…many other institutions, because we jumped on it so quickly, we have that experience, and we made a commitment. It wasn’t a half commitment – we said ‘We’re doing this,’ we put our resources into it, and it’s worked out better than we anticipated,” said Hancott, the Campus Provost/VP Academic for Yorkville University’s Vancouver-based campus.

Dr. Daren Hancott, Yorkville University’s BC Campus Provost and VP Academic

“I’m just so happy that we’ve achieved something so quickly that most people didn’t envision, or maybe haven’t even understood yet.”

Dr. Daren Hancott

While Yorkville’s transition was a swift one, it was also well considered. When faced with the sudden closure of its physical campuses in both Toronto and Vancouver when the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia declared states of emergency in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Yorkville University announced a delayed start to its Spring term for on-campus, undergraduate students.

In the weeks leading up to the postponed April 20 start, Hancott said Yorkville University staff and faculty worked tirelessly to create a “new normal” for all students impacted by the pandemic – both those already here in Canada, as well as those international students whose plans to come here to study were interrupted by pandemic-related travel restrictions

“We’re creating a new normal together, and this new normal is going to allow us to still be successful, even though we’re not as comfortable with it today as we will be as we move forward,” Hancott said of the ongoing adjustment.

Dr. Muhammed Kabir, Yorkville University’s Ontario Campus Provost and VP Academic

For Yorkville University faculty, the new normal they worked so hard to create is something Kabir characterized as a sort of ‘virtual reality-like’ environment that very much resembles that of a real classroom, but on Zoom – a video conferencing software the university’s students, staff and faculty had been using for at least a year prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

“(In our Zoom classrooms), the professors can see their students and students can see their fellow students and professors,” he explained.

“In the middle of the lecture, students can raise their hands so the professor can take the question and answer, and the professor can divide the class into different groups and give them group work (in breakout rooms).”

Yorkville also worked hard in the lead-up to April 20 to accommodate all those international students whose plans to come to the university this semester were interrupted by pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“We are offering an opportunity whereby they can start their program on time, so they won’t be losing any time going through this pandemic waiting period…” Kabir said of Yorkville’s efforts to ensure those international students could gain access to the university’s remote synchronous delivery model of instruction in their home countries.

“The program is being delivered via Zoom and other softwares using the latest and the best technology, and we are putting our best instructors on those courses being delivered in international locations including India, China, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran and other countries.”

Tristan Wright, Yorkville’s BC Director of Admissions, said his team helped facilitate numerous activities designed to help new and returning students, alike, succeed in their studies.

Tristan Wright, Director of Admissions, Yorkville University BC

“We’ve hosted daily webinar sessions…and done individual outreach to every single student, both inside and outside of Canada to make sure they all have access to their course material, and that they’re safe and healthy.”

Tristan Wright

“We’ve also launched a new student orientation package…increased our IT support by having six weekly drop-in sessions for both new and returning students. And in addition to that, we did all of those same activities for students that are stuck abroad in Iran, China and India, so students in Canada and around the world have had lots and lots of support.”

Ali Noor, Yorkville University’s Ontario Student Life Coordinator

On the non-academic side of things, Ali Noor and Pauline Tiongson  – Yorkville University’s Student Life coordinators in Ontario and BC, respectively – worked together to coordinate a full schedule of social activities for students from both campuses to enjoy over Zoom together.

From virtual cooking and exercise lessons, to jam sessions and dance parties, to debates and podcasts – all were designed to help ensure students not only remain engaged, but also continue to build new connections and friendships within the Yorkville University community.

“The object of these sessions and these activities are not only to give you fun and to give you entertainment, but to also ensure that you guys are engaged and that you guys remain united and you’re building friendships along the way,” Noor said in a message to students.

“Remember the approach to how we live life may feel different, that does not mean we stop living it…Together, I have no doubt that, united in distance, we will be the generation that conquers this pandemic and come out stronger.”

In terms of mental health and wellness, Dr. Deirdre Pickerell, the Dean of Student Success, and her team have been likewise hard at work rolling out a series of carefully curated resources ­– from podcasts and YouTube videos, to tip sheets and infographics, to a newly launched Ask An Expert webinar ­– all aimed at helping students and staff navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. Deirdre Pickerell, Yorkville University’s Dean of Student Success

“We’re taking the approach of sharing resources that will help students with their mental health and wellness.”

Dr. Deirdre Pickerell on #YU_CARES campaign

“That means not only sharing really cool content that we’re finding, but also creating content that we think will be helpful for students…It’s all geared to helping them navigate this really challenging time.”

Paul Graham, Yorkville University Librarian

Also working tirelessly to help support students and faculty through the transition from in-class to online studies has been Yorkville University’s Librarian, Paul Graham, and his library team.

“The most import thing is a focused service ethic. We have a library staff that’s now completely online during this crisis,” Graham said, noting that his team’s approach has been to ensure both awareness of, and access to the multitude of resources Yorkville University’s online library can provide.

“We enjoy when students ask us questions. We enjoy it when faculty has lots of work for us to do…We would welcome any question, any concern – even if we can’t answer it, we’ll find out who can and direct them to the correct department. When in doubt, ask the librarian.”

With all that groundwork laid in advance of April 20, Hancott said the Spring term at Yorkville University got off to an overwhelmingly positive start, with student engagement at perhaps an all-time high, despite the pandemic and its resulting physical-distancing measures.

“We have better attendance and more engaged students and faculty than we’ve ever had. Our Zoom classes, our training, all of the 171 webinars that he did, the helpful break-out rooms, the drop-in sessions that are continuing…are actually making us a more effective and efficient university,” said Hancott.

“I think we’re working more closely together than we ever have before – I can feel it, I can see it, and…so I would say onward and upward together.”

Dyhan Parekh, Bachelor of Business Administration student

Yorkville University students, too, have had nothing but good things to say about the transition.

“Now that I have studied on campus as well as online lectures, I can tell the effort the university and teachers have put in to online lectures. It is exceptional.”

Dyhan Parekh, Vancouver-based BBA student

“I know there’s a difference between studying on campus and online, but Yorkville has done the best to cover that gap.”

Flamy Gomes, Bachelor of Business Administration student

Added Flamy Gomes: “(Yorkville University) has shown amazing consistency…and they have made sure that they deliver to the students what they have promised,” said the Toronto-based BBA student.

“The teachers are coming up with new game simulations and discussions and new methods of teaching to keep the virtual life entrusting…It has been a mind-blowing experience.”

– Flamy Gomes, Toronto-based BBA student