COVID-19 has forced people across the globe to adapt their modus operandi to suit the demands of social distancing. Schools, universities, workplaces, and even birthday parties have now moved online, with programs like Zoom and Rave seeing an unprecedented rise in popularity.
Students at the University of Toronto (U of T) had a taste of online classes towards the tail end of the 2020 winter term, but many have yet to experience an online workplace — a prospect saved for the summer.
In particular, the university’s Research Opportunity Program (ROPs), a chance for students to work with professors at the university on their research, has faced difficulties in transforming hands-on research to online opportunities.
The offerings for 2020 summer ROPs have been trimmed down to those which are conducive to an online format. Among these is Josh Milstein’s Physics ROP, “Bacterial Fight Club.”
“My lab does a lot of computational work, so I just shifted the focus of the project to only involve computer programming and data analysis,” said Milstein. “We collected preliminary data before the shutdown, which should be sufficient for the summer.”
Jeffrey Boase, a professor in Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (CCIT), emphasised the shift to online conduction as remaining true to the original ROP’s aims. His ROP, “Communication Technology and Social Life,” seeks to offer a “rich understanding of how communication technology is embedded into personal networks.”
“The spirit of it is the same,” Boase explained. “Now it is just focused on hosting interviews through Zoom, transcribing conducted interviews, and coding responses qualitatively.”
Students in Boase’s ROP work independently from home, using software like NVivo to analyse the responses garnered from conducted interviews.
Elizabeth Coulson, a professor in Education Studies, offered her views on the changes seen in both the workplace as well as in pedagogy across Canada.
“I’ve been pondering this question in my research — the reinvention of undergraduate education, [and] what it looks like,” said Coulson. “We’re being forced to look into it. How do we learn at home, how do we learn outside the classroom? It’s a way for universities to embrace the change and look for ways [to adapt].”
Coulson’s ROP on “Innovation in Education” is highly relevant in today’s world. She currently has three research projects running, including one on “looking at education through the lens of corona(virus).”
“If we’re worried about a second spike, we may have to look at hybrid versions [of ROPs and courses],” she added.
Currently her ROP is being offered online in the upcoming terms, but she is also focusing on restructuring both ROPs and courses.
Coulson’s interest in health, education, social justice, and equity have resulted in collaborations with researchers at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health as well as Harvard on various interdisciplinary projects.
“Public health and education are going to marry in a way they never have before. This is a time for us to do a lot of interdisciplinary work,” continued Coulson.
While these research opportunities are conducive to today’s modus operandi, there are fields that are struggling to adapt.
“Experimental work is definitely harder to conduct under these circumstances, since we can’t run any experiments,” said Milstein. “Theoretical/computational research is not as affected.”
His ROP consists of observing cell division and inter-colony interactions of bacterial colonies, but, like Boase, he relies on preliminary data to keep his research functioning.
Due to the restrictions on the flexibility of the research, he says he may have to take on fewer ROP students in the coming terms.
Boase echoes these sentiments, saying that as time goes by it will be harder to find a role for students to play within the ROP framework.
Students have taken to the internet to voice their concerns regarding ROPs in the time of COVID-19. A number have already lost positions as a consequence.
Yet Coulson maintains an optimistic view of the current situation. She feels that the face of research will change as we learn to grapple with these limitations.
“I’m really excited about the innovation that will come,” she said. “I think the world is changing forever.”