Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Radiation Protection Education Programs
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the way the world is functioning right now, and, of course, this extends into university education and research in radiation protection programs. Here are two perspectives on the impact the pandemic has had on teaching and learning.
Ed Waller, a professor at Ontario Tech University and a past president of CRPA, provides his point of view as a professor and Marta Kocemba, a PhD student and teaching assistant at Ontario Tech University, provides insight from the student’s viewpoint.
How Ontario Tech’s Radiation Science Programs Were Affected by the Pandemic
By Ed Waller, professor, Ontario Tech University, and CRPA past president
At Ontario Tech University we offer undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate programs in health physics, radiation science, and nuclear engineering. Since March 2020, Ontario Tech has been effectively locked down—teaching moved to primarily online, and, for the better part of a year, we’ve had limited access to our research laboratories. That being said, we still need to function as a university and, therefore, have had to adapt to the new ways of life in Canada.
At Ontario Tech we’ve developed strict screening, masking, distancing, sanitizing, and occupancy protocols designed to keep our community safe. The question I am going to try to answer here is, How were our radiation science programs affected?
First, I will address teaching. When we went into lockdown, we needed to immediately shift to online delivery, which happened at almost the same time that we adopted a new learning management system, so the timing was not ideal.
We needed to finish our winter semester courses remotely, including exams. Everyone stepped up, and, to my amazement, the transition was remarkably smooth. We turned our cameras and microphones on and plowed ahead. Luckily, at this point in the semester, laboratories were almost finished, as were classes, so the impact to students was minimal.
I was surprised at how much better people’s internet connections got overnight . . . almost like they had been throttled somehow and someone, somewhere, flicked a switch to make them better. Class sizes of 50, 100, and even 200 students were almost immediately accommodated online; prior to lockdown, this would have been extremely difficult.
As instructors, however, we did have a lot of challenges. We’ve been conditioned to teaching in person. Personally, I get a rush out of actively interacting with students, and teaching in a virtual format took that away. Also, you don’t get the same level of student feedback or questioning when teaching online, which impacts both the instructor and the student experience. You’re essentially “talking to yourself,” and you have to be creative with engagement—for example, creating polls and forcing conversation.
Other challenges include online testing; we have had to rethink how this is best accomplished. Much of this has to do with reducing stress and anxiety for students. Changing to smaller quizzes spaced throughout the semester and open-book or take-home exam formats has been successful. It does, in some cases, involve a paradigm shift—the goal is to deliver the same material and achieve the learning outcomes in modified ways.
On the positive side, we have been able to set up our teaching spaces however we desire, and we haven’t been tethered to what the university supplies. This allows us to be more creative.
Online teaching made it easier for me to demonstrate state-of-the-art radiation protection computer codes (IMBA, MicroShield, MCNP, Fortran compilers, etc.). The feedback I received from students was that they learned more this way. You may ask, Why is this easier at home? I use a multiple monitor set-up, and it is quick and easy to put different codes, tools, etc. on different screens before I teach and drag them back and forth into my teaching space. Likewise with videos or any other multimedia I want to use.
Simply put, when you are surrounded by your technical references and tools of the trade, it’s easier to teach with them. Need to show a radiation detector? I pull one out of my secret stash! Just remembered some picture you want to show them? Just grab it from one of the backup drives connected to my system. Doing all this is very hard when you have to go to some other building to teach.
Online teaching means I never have to worry about some high-usage connector not working or my projector resolution not being good enough (although you’re still at the mercy of the internet connection).
I do miss being able to turn to the whiteboard and just write or draw—I use an online whiteboard at times, but I find it clunky. I’m not much of an artist anyway, and using the tablet touch screen or a drawing tablet is even worse.
I’ve found that students love having recorded lectures, and this is very easily accomplished through whichever video-meeting tool you use.
From the instructor’s perspective, one of the largest challenges we have is delivering laboratories. Radiation protection is a very hands-on field, and students simply do not get the same experience watching a lab being demonstrated as they do when they’re actively participating. Fortunately, we have very dedicated laboratory specialists and teaching assistants who’ve done the best possible job of recording laboratories with commentary and providing interactive tools for students to get the most out of this situation. Students still “come to the lab,” but virtually. The laboratory instructor is with them live in the lab (following COVID-19 protocols) and can interact with the students virtually. It is the best we can do at the moment.
The truth of the matter is that much of this will become legacy content to supplement teaching in the future.
From the research side (which impacts graduate students), COVID-19 has been tough. Everyone doing experimental research related to radiation protection has been immeasurably impacted. If you cannot get to your equipment, you cannot do the research.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) determined that students’ abilities to complete their degrees on time would be impacted, and they wisely extended funding to cover this.
Another research-related problem that is often overlooked is the fact that I’ve been waiting for delivery of a costly piece of research equipment for more than six months . . . it’s sitting with a vendor in Georgia waiting to be sent up and installed by a technician who cannot get into Canada because of quarantine protocols. Such is life.
To summarize, if you asked me if I like teaching online, I would have to answer both yes and no. Some aspects are brilliant and some are horrendous. When we get back to normal, there will be lessons learned from online delivery that we can hopefully port into a sort of hybrid model.
If you asked me whether I like what the pandemic has done to our research agendas, I would say it has been terrible. A bigger elephant in the room is that other countries that have not taken the pandemic quite so seriously have still forged ahead with both their teaching and research agendas while we sit and watch (and lose ground).
However all of the problems we have teaching radiation protection pale in comparison to the problems faced by front-line and essential workers in hospitals, positions of public safety, grocery stores, and the like. Our problems also pale compared with challenges faced by business owners and staff who’ve been almost insurmountably impacted. And, of course, anyone who has been directly and indirectly impacted by the virus has our heartfelt sympathy. Our support needs to go out to all of these people. Here’s hoping that we all get vaccinated sooner rather than later!
A Graduate Student’s Perspective
By Marta Kocemba, PhD student and teaching assistant, Ontario Tech University
As a graduate student at Ontario Tech University, I have the opportunity to be a student in advanced radiation science courses, as well as to be the instructor for undergraduate laboratories in a variety of radiation protection–related topics.
Ontario Tech (like other post-graduate institutions) sent students and instructors home in favour of virtual learning in March 2020 when it became clear COVID-19 was becoming a significant public health concern. One year later, many universities are still using an online-only teaching and learning environment, so students enrolled in the Health Physics and Radiation Science program and the Nuclear Engineering program at Ontario Tech are learning from home.
Learning in a virtual environment has brought significant changes for students—some helpful, others detrimental.
For those of us who are long-distance commuters or who hold part-time jobs, travelling to and from campus takes valuable time out of the day that can now be put toward study. Having lectures recorded and posted on learning management systems is helpful for students who find value in being able to review lectures.
On the other hand, having a private, quiet, and comfortable workspace at home is a privilege for many students who generally rely on libraries and other on-campus workspaces. (This was certainly my experience in my undergraduate years, and in many ways this has continued into my time in graduate school.) In-person learning isn’t just about sitting in a classroom for lectures and going to a laboratory for practical exercises—it allows students to use on-campus space and resources to give themselves an environment conducive to learning.
As a student, my impression of virtual learning is that some courses may be well suited to it, but that depends a lot on the course content. I had a good time learning about various dosimetry considerations, simulation codes, and case studies in dosimetry applications in graduate courses delivered virtually. There was plenty of practical work assigned, but it was generally based on performing computer simulations and dosimetry calculations.
The experience is very different when learning how to use a radiation detector for the first time or becoming familiar with applying ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) principles when using radioactive sources in a laboratory exercise, or even walking around the radiation facilities that our faculty building is home to. In fact, new Ontario Tech students are often teased about the facility by their more seasoned peers and instructors: “Just wait until you get to see the bunker!”
In general, undergraduate students who are missing out on these experiences truly are missing out. Part of my work involves teaching undergraduate radiation protection laboratories, and, while the students are learning the material virtually, there is no substitute for performing the work themselves. This is true for both students enrolled in their very first radiation detection course and upper years enrolled in more specialized radiation science courses.
These days, participating in a laboratory exercise means logging into an online live-stream to watch your laboratory instructor perform the experiment and provide you with the resulting data. Post-laboratory analysis and report writing are much the same as they have always been, but students are missing the fundamental experience that come from doing the exercises themselves—experiences that are specifically designed to help students learn hands-on radiation protection skills.
Students (myself included) can’t wait to get back to an in-person university setting—this is something I have heard from undergraduate and graduate students alike. This goes for being able to physically participate in laboratories, but also for being able to use campus space for collaborating with peers, finding quiet study space, and such basic things as having access to printers and whiteboards.
Education isn’t solely through the delivery of lectures—if this were the case, we would probably find it much easier to be on a virtual platform. Students benefit from having a common space where they can share and interact with peers and instructors. This is particularly important in a field like ours where everyone seems to know everyone else. Students benefit from being able to interact with their professors. While some of this does come through in virtual instruction, it’s safe to say that none of us—students or instructors—would consider an online-only format to be an adequate replacement for traditional learning.
As we join the rest of the world in wondering when we will reach the ever-elusive “back to normal,” it’s important to remember that virtual learning is helping give society a better chance to emerge from this pandemic quickly.
The sacrifices we’re making as students and instructors do not compare to the unrelenting battle being fought by our front-line workers. In many ways, we’re lucky to be able to continue our teaching and learning through this pandemic, despite finding certain aspects lacking compared to traditional education.
As we wait through the vaccine rollout and we continue to limit the spread of COVID-19, we’re also continuing to learn virtually and starting to think about what aspects of online teaching might actually be better than in-person delivery. We will be able to implement some of these things after we get back to in-person learning, and hopefully we will come out of this with stronger educational strategies. In the meantime, let’s all continue to make the sacrifices we can make in order to give our front-line workers the support they so truly deserve.