Every week, Peter Lee, Culinary Management program coordinator at Durham College (DC), arrives at the Whitby Campus and teaches remotely for his students at home, while he’s in his office, the kitchen.
One thing that’s different this year is there’s a lot more space in the DC campus kitchen because Lee is often the only one baking pastries or preparing chicken stock.
During his online demonstrations, it’s like he’s the head chef for a cooking show on TV. The problem is there’s no live audience, he’s by himself, and he’s his own cameraman.
The drops of water that drip onto his laptop screen after he’s washed his hands for the fifth time, or his flour-covered hands trying to adjust the camera so his students know how to prepare bread, are just some challenges he’s faced during his online teaching experience.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all post-secondary education has been taught online in 2020. This has caused both professors and students to adjust to a new virtual world.
According to a survey done by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), the pandemic has caused the quality of education to decline. Of the 2,700 university students who completed the survey, 62 per cent believe online learning has had a negative impact on the quality of their education.
Elaine Popp, Durham College’s Vice President, Academic, doesn’t agree with OCUFA. She feels studies exist that would suggest online learning has improved the educational experience.
While she doesn’t agree with the survey, Popp recognizes some of the challenges students have faced during the pandemic.
“I think during the pandemic, many individuals have faced financial pressures. A lot of students I know weren’t able to find summer employment, and so that has put additional financial pressures on them that they wouldn’t normally experience,” says Popp.
Popp also thinks not having a dedicated study space or quality internet have impeded students’ ability to learn.
Lee, 48, says his online teaching experience hasn’t been all bad. He finds resources like DC Connect and Bongo very helpful and easy to operate.
According to Lee, his classes are split into both online lectures and in-person labs. During the lectures, the 10-year professor provides a live-tutorial for his students, showing them things like recipes or how to properly use knives.
He designs the lectures to make sure his students are prepared when they’re asked to cook.
Lee says he often misses all the elements of a pre-pandemic lab. The sounds of a crackling pan of bacon or a student’s excitement after tasting their first omelette of the semester.
He recognizes this is a very unusual culinary experience for his students.
“In nursing, how’re you supposed to stick a needle in somebody, you can only practice on orange so many times, and the food’s the same way. You can’t smell it; you can’t taste it. We were all wondering how the heck this is going to work,” says, Lee.
Yanique Melissa-Saunders, a second- year student in the Culinary Management program, says the 2020 fall semester has really made her miss pre-online learning.
Melissa-Saunders, 30, is an international student from Jamaica, and she’s always loved baking lemon tarts in the school kitchen, and spending time with her classmates in the cafeteria. She misses the college atmosphere.
She doesn’t exactly love the online learning aspect of her program either.
“It’s boring,” says Melissa-Saunders.
She finds herself overwhelmed by the amount of information her professors deliver, and she has a hard time focusing in her home. Melissa-Saunders doesn’t have the most stable internet connection, so she’s had to run from room to room multiple times, just so she can stay connected to her class.
One virtual experience that really sticks with Melissa-Saunders is when her professor was explaining his lesson, but the presentation never showed up on the screen. After 10 minutes of talking, someone finally opened up their microphone and explained to him what was happening.
This was when Melissa-Saunders realized how much she missed regular classes.
Unlike Lee, Brandon Carson, part-time web-design professor at Durham College, has been forced to teach exclusively online. He has enjoyed this adjustment and he feels he’s created a classroom structure that’s set his students up for success.
Carson, 34, has used Microsoft Teams to create an open learning space where students can ask him questions, share their screens, and connect with other classmates in private breakout rooms.
While Carson does miss being in the classroom, he feels online learning has been beneficial for both him and his students. Carson has made his classes optional to attend, which has provided a flexible schedule for his students.
Carson’s experience during the pandemic has been unique compared to most professors. His full-time job at the Centre for Academic Faculty Enrichment (CAFE) DC is to assist any faculty that are struggling with using technology in the classroom.
He’s never had more professors asking him for help, but Carson says this year hasn’t been all bad.
“It’s been great. Most of the questions teachers ask revolve around how they can convert something they usually use in a regular classroom setting to an online environment. I’m always happy to help make someone’s life a little easier,” says Carson.
The 2020-2021 school year has forced many teachers and students to adapt. Lee has remained optimistic about virtual learning, but he’s always aware of the challenges that exist.
“The biggest disadvantage is they can’t smell or taste anything. So, when we go to the lab, it’s hard to know what you want because you can’t taste the product,” he says, “especially if it’s an ingredient they’ve never eaten before or a dish they’ve never made before, they don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like.”
Whether his lab is filled with 20 students, who are laughing and working together, or 6 students wearing masks and social distancing, Lee has the same message on why he thinks the culinary program is so great.
“I keep telling students, this is the fun part of the school. You get to make food and eat it,” says Lee.
At the end of Lee’s online lectures, he wishes his students well, closes his laptop, and sanitizes every piece of equipment he’s used that day. This is the new norm.
No more holding the door opening for a student, or staying 15 minutes after class to answer questions about soup. Lee has embraced the change.
COVID-19 cases around the world continue to rise and a return to normal seems far away, but with professors like Lee who embrace change, maybe virtual teaching can get easier one day at a time.