Periodically, Alexandria Vagar sets aside her work in her Vancouver KPMG office and opens Zoom to attend classes for her Master in Environmental Economics and Management (MEEM) degree at TRU.
Vagar hasn’t yet visited TRU’s campus, but she’s been a MEEM student since January 2022, when she chose to specialize in sustainability consulting (currently, she’s working as a resource planner at KPMG and hopes to use her new skills within its environmental, social and governance consulting team). And thanks to a new virtual option within the program, she will be able to complete her degree while living in her hometown and continuing work with her employer.
“In terms of learning styles, virtual classes are definitely a shift from being in-person, but you still have time with your professor and you can still access the same resources,” Vagar says. “I still would have pursued a master’s degree without this option, but this came together with the right timing, length, cost — it all came together perfectly.”
Both the MEEM and the Master of Science in Environmental Economics (MScEEM) are specialized programs that tend to attract people from far afield. Often, students are working professionals with work and family commitments that preclude moving to a new city to attend class.
Hybrid fills a need
The TRU Gaglardi faculty had been looking at how to offer hybrid learning, and first offered a virtual option in the 2020-21 academic year. Students who have embraced the hybrid option include Vagar and Umma Kulsum Shemo, who came to Kamloops in 2020 to complete the MScEEM.
While Shemo lives in Kamloops, she, like many parents with young families, wasn’t able to find childcare during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of daycare for her four-month-old daughter threatened to delay her degree.
“So I took four courses virtually, and while I did miss my classmates and seeing everyone face-to-face, the teachers were amazing at making us feel like we were in the class,” Shemo says. “They are very interested in hearing from us, answering questions and including the virtual students in discussions.”
Dr. Laura Lamb, economics professor and chair of the MEEM and MScEEM programs, says the eight core courses shared between the programs are all available through hybrid delivery in a specialized classroom, IB1010, that has video monitors installed at the back. Students who participate virtually join the classroom to participate in lectures, breakout groups and discussions at the same time as face-to-face students.
That’s key, says Lamb, who adds that one of the things the program’s faculty learned during their first year offering the hybrid model was how important it is for every student to have their video turned on to encourage participation.
Video participation is vital
“The video monitors at the back of the classroom allow me to see the faces of our virtual students. As a professor, that is very important. If I’m explaining a concept that I know is more complex, I’ll explain it and invite questions, and students may be a little shy or reluctant to speak in front of the class,” Lamb says. “But when you’re able to see their faces, you can see confusion and other non-verbal cues that are really important feedback to tell you that you need to spend more time on a concept.”
And what about the bane of online and virtual meetings: technical difficulties? Lamb says a trained teaching assistant is always in the room, so faculty don’t have to interrupt their teaching to troubleshoot video or sound quality.
“I think all of us wondered if we would be able to present a smooth, professional lecture while dealing with technical aspects, so it’s been a huge relief to have the full support of the teaching assistants. It has been imperative to the smooth running of the program,” Lamb says.
Shemo’s daughter is now nearly two years old, and Shemo and her husband, also a TRU student, are still juggling childcare and coursework while she works on her final project: how variation in energy prices affects users’ behaviour and energy use.
“Hybrid learning gave us a lot of flexibility without missing out on the classroom experience, and I would absolutely do it again,” Shemo says.