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New approach to learning in the pandemic is a huge draw

New approach to learning in the pandemic is a huge draw

By Anna McMenemy

Most people steered clear of the COVID-19 pandemic chaos… but not Dr. Ryan Gregory.

Instead of waiting for the smoke to clear, Gregory and colleagues, Drs. Sofie Lachapelle and Elizabeth Finnis, decided to seize the moment and develop a learning experience to help students make sense of what was happening around them.

“We leaned into this unfamiliar situation and embraced it,” says Gregory. 

The result was a diverse new course about – appropriately – pandemics. And University of Guelph officials say it has set a new standard for planning and delivering large multidisciplinary courses.

Gregory, Lachapelle and Finnis suspected students would be numb from hearing about the usual pandemic matters, such as case counts and death tolls. They wanted to broaden the discussion and have students learn directly from a variety of experts. So, they invited public health experts to talk about why certain restrictions were being put in place as well as social justice and equity researchers to offer perspectives on pandemic experiences that students might not have considered.

Gregory and his colleagues ensured that every class was different from the last, which was made possible by the course’s structure. It comprised a series of panels with three experts from different disciplines each week. Gregory reached out to numerous faculty members asking them to be panelists… and almost every single invitee responded with an enthusiastic “yes.”

But it wasn’t only the speakers and topics that were unique – so was the enrolment. Alongside the 200 undergraduate students taking the course, alumni were invited to register and 100 spots were quickly filled.

In fact, the course was so popular that Gregory and his colleagues have since designed two more pandemic courses following a similar layout. One offered in the 2021 winter semester focused on COVID-19 research happening on campus. Another, being offered this fall, will examine how to move forward and what may change after the pandemic.

Across all three courses a total of 90 different panelists, 1,000 students, and hundreds of alumni will have come together to learn from one another.

Gregory says this course’s success reflects the power of collaboration and creativity in an unconventional time. And it acts as a model for future “massively multidisciplinary courses,” as Gregory calls them.

The potential applications are huge. Focusing first on pandemics made sense given the timing, but Gregory is excited about what other topics a course like this could tackle. These include climate change, food security, or One Health, that is, the recognition that human, animal, and environmental health are interconnected. It was already on display in the pandemics courses as students learned how the pandemic impacted all three pillars of health and made clear their interconnectedness. For example, there were panels about wildlife policy, companion animal health, environmental change and conservation efforts, and the social aspects of health and wellbeing. By bringing together such a multidisciplinary group of students, alumni, and faculty, this type of course can effectively display the complexity of One Health issues and the variety of expertise needed to develop solutions.

“It’s a great way to showcase diversity and connect people who otherwise wouldn’t be connected,” says Gregory.

He has high praise for the way these courses have emphasized the importance and relevance of every perspective. He says that everyone came away from the courses with a deeper respect and appreciation of each discipline, which is a central tenant of One Health. Gregory was intentional about making sure different voices were heard and that students recognized that there are multiple ways to approach complex issues – lessons he hopes will continue to be taught using this course model.

“These courses make clear that there is a seat at the table for everybody,” says Gregory.

Panel recordings from the fall 2020 pandemics course are available on the University of Guelph’s Alumni Affairs and Development website: https://alumni.uoguelph.ca/events/events-listing/pandemics-culture-science-and-society-course.

Gregory, Lachapelle and Finnis also co-wrote an essay for The Conversation Canada about the course, which can be found here: https://theconversation.com/a-university-course-on-pandemics-what-we-learned-when-80-experts-300-alumni-and-600-students-showed-up-156277

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