This week, the Muse had the opportunity to speak with Provost Dr. Mark Abrahams to discuss online academics, the value of extracurriculars (and what we have lost from them in a digital space), and Memorial University’s financial situation.
Online education has proven a tough adversary, but staff and students of Memorial University have been battling it together.
First, Dr. Abrahams and I discussed how the switch to online learning has affected academia. Specifically, we talked about the recent scandal of increased academic misconduct, the role of extracurricular activities in an online environment, and the university’s financial situation.
Students have been questioning the validity of an online education. When asked what he thought about the quality of an online/remote education, Dr. Abrahams replied, “you’re not getting the same experience as you would on campus.” He added, “this is [not] the preferred form of educating our students, it’s our preference because this is the only way we can do so safely.” He stated that he is hopeful we will soon return to normal, and hopes “that we will benefit from this experience and… take the good parts and carry those forward.”
Later, Dr. Abrahams and I were able to discuss the recent ‘cheating scandal’ at MUN. On February 23, 2021, the CBC released an article citing a drastic increase of academic misconduct at our university. This article was met with predominantly negative feelings from students, who thought that the university’s focus on academic integrity rather than supporting students and faculty is unfair.
I questioned why the university would participate in an anti-cheating article when I (and other students like myself) thought there were much larger issues this year. In mentioning these complaints, I cited a lack of easily accessible academic support and the availability of sites like Chegg, which can permit students to find entire exams online, thus increasing the temptation to cheat. When asked if he thought the rise of cheating could be attributed to a lack of support for students and a lack of support for professors, who may not have incentive or resources to create new exams or new ways to force students not to cheat, Dr. Abrahams stated first and foremost that “it’s clearly a complex issue. And, you know, nobody is heaping all the blame on one particular group at all, and that’s certainly not the university’s position.” Going on, he said:
“It’s not helpful for people to point fingers at each other and blame some other group. As you say, we’ve been encouraging faculty to be lenient with students, but we’ve also been encouraging students to be lenient with faculty. The bottom line is it’s hard for everybody. And really, everybody needs support, and that’s the position of the university. We’re trying to support – we’re in the business of our students being successful and our faculty absolutely want their students to be successful, and we’re here to support both groups.”Dr. Abrahams, MUN Provost
When asked how the rise of cheating at MUN will affect the university’s status as an educational institution, Dr. Abrahams claimed that “Institutional status is a relative measure. And so, we are by no means alone, in fact I think every university around Canada and I believe around the world is struggling with this same situation.” As such, it might come at a shock to students that the gravity of this issue across the world was not mentioned in the CBC article. Perhaps this information would have minimized some backlash for students.
The article also references the issues of class group chats as these have caused innocent students to be implicated in cheating. On this issue, Dr. Abrahams said, “my concern are those people who end up inadvertently being accused of cheating, mostly by being a victim of circumstances.”
The issue of group chats implies the problem of isolation: for some students, class group chats have been one reliable source of support which is otherwise unattainable in the online environment.
When asked what the university might recommend students do to minimize their feelings of isolation if group chats are unsafe, Dr. Abrahams outlined the ways in which the university is hoping to increase student-to-student interaction. He mentioned the library single study spaces and the plans for study rooms which “which would allow us to maintain social distancing but would allow students to interact with each other, actually have a conversation without using a computer to do so… Something which is a rare commodity this past eleven plus months.” While these solutions will not be possible until Eastern Health permits, Dr. Abrahams referenced some “websites and web supports that we are trying, to support not only the academic problem but some of the social problems at the university as well.”
To echo Dr. Abrahams, I am also hopeful for a return to a normal campus experience in the coming future, wishing that university will go back to being the “University Experience,” where a student can work on finding themselves through things like groups, extracurriculars, and other things a campus has to offer.
Dr. Abrahams and I discussed extracurricular activities and their importance to university students. Extracurricular groups can significantly increase a student’s connection to their school and their education, while allowing them to build skills and resume items as well. As a member of a few societies and clubs, I am very aware of the difficulties organizations are facing as education remains online. In the isolation of online school, a time when groups and clubs could really benefit students’ mental health, it is appropriate to find out how the university sees these groups.
When asked about the value of extracurriculars, Dr. Abrahams stated that “[they are] incredibly valuable, and I think that’s probably the part which has contributed the most to a lot of the stress that many people experience… not being able to enjoy those additional experiences that provide that extra meaning to the university experience.” He said that the Student Union has been able to offer groups free Webex software to host meetings, and while “it’s a poor substitute for being together physically… [I] do believe that I think there is an end in sight to the current environment in which we see ourselves, so I’m hoping that whatever solutions are in place hopefully will only have use for a couple more months.”
Finally, we briefly discussed the university’s financial situation. As the province (im)patiently awaits the election and the ominous Moya Greene report, it is clearer than ever that Newfoundland Labrador is nearing insolvency, as we are already in the midst of financial ruin. As Memorial is a publicly-funded university, one must beg the question: How will MUN make it through this crisis?
When I asked what Dr. Abrahams thought the province’s poor financial standing meant for the school’s reputation, he replied “Memorial University is always committed to the quality of its programs and of all its graduates. We just need to know what environment in which it it is that we are operating so we can adjust accordingly.”
Furthermore, I asked Dr. Abrahams how he feels about student services such as MUNSU which have been losing student money consistently. As students, we have a right to be aware of where our money is going and to know that it is being put to good use. Dr. Abrahams pointed me toward MUNSU for these answers, and emphasized that “there is no extraordinary financial situation that the university currently finds itself [in].”
After the interview, I asked Dr. Abrahams if he had anything to say directly to students. He said,
“The university doesn’t exist if we don’t have our students. So we’re here to support our students, and if there’s anything that we can do to further support our students we would be more than happy to do so. I am hopeful that the pandemic will be coming to an end in the not too distance future and I’m hoping to have something more approximating a normal academic year next year, but the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s very difficult to predict the future.”Dr. Abrahams, MUN Provost
I would like to thank Dr. Abrahams and his office for taking the time to speak with the Muse.