Zooming In: Education in 2021

2021, Summit Towards Equity, Education + Research, Equity + Justice

From 2020-2021, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and SFU made the switch to remote education, students, staff and faculty have faced steep learning curves while adjusting to this new reality.

Although remote learning may have ensured student safety, it was also proven to be challenging, stressful, frustrating, and inequitable. As we thought about the future of both online and in-person learning, the following questions came to mind:

  • How could we create positive change within the remote education system?
  • What are some ideas and solutions to foster a safe and accessible environment, both remotely and in-person?
  • How could we continue to strengthen our connection and togetherness with the community?
  • What could we learn from the experiences of remote education as we transitioned back to in-person learning?

SFU Public Square’s Peer Ambassadors created an interactive online event to reflect on the COVID-19 remote education experience. We discussed what lessons and solutions we can take forward from it.

Wed, 31 Mar 2021

Online Event

Part of Towards Equity


For a full list of 2020/2021 Peer Ambassadors hosting the event, go here.

Christina Lam

Peer Ambassador, SFU Public Square

Christina is an SFU Public Square Peer Ambassador and a first-year student studying in the fields of health sciences and social sciences. As an Ambassador with SFU Public Square, Christina hopes to create a positive and welcoming environment where all members of the SFU community can connect, grow, and learn together by engaging in conversations on diverse issues—thus becoming part of each other’s learning journeys.

Haebin Pan

Peer Ambassador, SFU Public Square

Haebin is an SFU Public Square Peer Ambassador and an SFU alumna with a major in English and a minor in learning and developmental disabilities. The wonderful experiences that she had at SFU led her to continue serving the SFU community by becoming an SFU Public Square Peer Ambassador. Her passion lies in fostering engagement and strengthening connections for the SFU community. Haebin looks forward to creating a safe space for meaningful and productive dialogues that inspire innovation. 

Guest Speakers

Dr. Martin Laba 

Associate Professor, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Martin Laba, Ph.D. teaches in the School of Communication at SFU with a particular focus on "applied communication for social issues". He has researched, designed and implemented a wide range of communication/media messages, strategies and campaigns around urgent and critical social issues in local, national, and international contexts. After serving as Director of Academic Community Engagement for the university initiative that established an open source educational technology platform at SFU (Canvas), his research has focussed on teaching and learning in complex and dynamic communication/media environments. He has been prominent in the media and at SFU on issues, currents, and controversies related to teaching and learning during the pandemic. His most recent published works address issues of educational futures, teaching and learning for social change, education and digital culture, popular culture and transformative education, educational resets the jobless society, activism and education, and more.

Read some recent reflections from Professor Laba on remote teaching.

Aleisha Fernandes

Health Peer Educator, SFU Health and Counselling Services

Aleisha is a SFU Health Peer Educator and a soon-to-be SFU alumna with a major in Health Sciences and minor in Kinesiology and certificate in Health Ethics. As a Health Peer Educator, she has hosted a number of outreaches and workshops related to self-compassion, nutrition, mental health and more. During the pandemic, she has pivoted to creating podcasts, blog, and social media content. Recently, she co-founded Chai Chat, a virtual peer support space for International students to connect and discuss topics related to health. She is also a Co-lead for the Student Health Advisory Committee at SFU Health and Counselling Services, where she is currently coordinating a health equity impact assessment of virtual services. Aleisha is passionate about education, mental health and issues related to social justice, especially gender and racial equity. 

Mariel Olaguer

Health Peer Educator

Mariel Olaguer is a Behavioural Neuroscience major and Health Peer Educator that started volunteering during the pandemic. Going online, she has contributed to blogs, social media outreaches and hosted workshops for topics from body image to cultivating resilience. Mariel looks forward to making Health & Counselling resources more accessible to the SFU community while normalizing mental health through awareness and open dialogue.

Event Summary

Recap of Zooming In: Education in 2021

By SFU Public Square’s 2021 Peer Ambassadors

On March 31, 2021, we, as SFU Public Square’s Peer Ambassadors, hosted Zooming in: Education in 2021 as part of SFU Public Square's 2021 Community Summit: Towards Equity. During this event, attendees discussed their concerns about transitioning to in-person classes and how the pandemic has transformed the format of post-secondary education.

In this blog, we will describe our event’s purpose, summarize highlights from our speakers and attendees from the breakout rooms, and share our thoughts about the event.

At the beginning of the event, one of our polls showed that 47 per cent of the participants were scared about returning to in-person classes in the coming months. How can we take the lessons, frustrations and benefits that we’ve experienced in remote learning and apply them to an in-person context?

Read More

The purpose of Zooming In

Our event adopted a forward-thinking mindset that fits with SFU’s expectation to return to in-person learning in fall 2021. We focused on our attendees’ current concerns about education and their suggestions about improving the student experience. Through this, we wanted our participants to consider what could be done to make sure education will work for everyone in a post-pandemic world.

At the same time, we recognized that SFU’s announcement about its plans for the fall was anxiety-inducing for many in the SFU community. Especially for students, our health and our educational experiences are highly interconnected. Acknowledging this, we also wanted to provide students with information about resources and health supports available to them during this time of uncertainty and change.

Highlights from the speakers' presentations

Martin Laba

To start off the night, our first presenter was Martin Laba, an associate professor in SFU's School of Communication. During his presentation, Laba delivered a passionate soliloquy, reminding us of the role of the university and its students, and how remote learning has impacted our routine learning habits. Laba emphasized that students work for their education and the university has a mandate to help its students apply their skills to the real world. Keeping this in mind, Laba was clear to state that this will not be a return to "normal," but an opportunity to improve the delivery and experience of higher education.

To quote Laba, he believes that “our educational experiences need to set students into action.” By taking this view and looking at the remote experience as an "experiment," Laba found that there seems to be a belief that students are not self-directed. From a conversation with other teaching professors, it may even seem like the truth, but Laba pointed out that this is not the case. At least in his experience, students are self-directed, but “if that’s the case [that students are not self-directed], whose fault is that? Certainly not the students’.” Moving from remote education, this experience should “inform and direct our educational priorities now and in the future” to change the “normal” transmission of knowledge at the university. We have the opportunity to re-evaluate and transform the student experience. To sum it up, we leave you with this quote:

“Our models of education must move from knowledge in the abstract to knowledge in action. From knowledge that is not abstract, actually, but rather derived from lived experience and active social engagement.”

Laba gives us much more insight into the potential to transform education in the recording of the event.

Health Peers

Our second speaker presentation was given by two of SFU’s Health Peers, Aleisha Fernandes and Mariel Olaguer. They shared some of the resources that SFU Health & Counselling has been offering to students, including the initiatives that the Health Peers have been working on to support students’ health and wellbeing. In particular, they shared some of the suggestions they put together from a survey conducted last summer on what students most wanted their professors to know about their remote learning experiences.

Some of the recommendations were to:

  • Increase office hour availabilities
  • Reduce workload (e.g., changing large exams to several smaller quizzes)
  • Take regular breaks during lectures
  • Provide alternatives to live participation
  • Implement flexible deadlines
  • Encourage social interactions (e.g., by using discussion boards on Canvas)
  • Acknowledge students’ input
  • Be yourself (teach authentically!)

Breakout room highlights

In the breakout rooms, attendees had the opportunity to share their thoughts on the current education system and give suggestions for the future. Here are the main highlights from the breakout room discussions.


Both students and faculty/staff are struggling with the lack of energy and social interaction. This struggle negatively affects the engagement level in the classes. There needs to be an effective plan for preventing the spread of COVID-19 on SFU’s campuses and maintaining cleanliness.

Some remote exams are structured in ways that are more challenging for students.

For example, there may not be enough time allocated to complete the exam, or it may be difficult to ask for clarification on questions.

When questions are shown one at a time, students cannot determine how to use their time effectively to answer them (e.g., spending too much time on easier questions).

The return to in-person education will create some anxiety, especially for current first-year students whose initial university experience was remote education.


On a positive note, the switch to remote education has had various benefits, including accessibility, flexibility and the option of working at one’s own pace. Thus, SFU could consider offering a hybrid model of education: a combination of in-person and remote education systems.

For example, live-streamed classes could be recorded. Attending in-person lectures would not be mandatory.
This model also benefits international students who cannot enter/return to Canada due to travel restrictions.

Since SFU is raising tuition fees for students, they can use the increased revenue to improve the quality of online education and resources. Education is not a one-way transaction; students can help professors in developing and managing their online and in-person classes. Building social connections is important: being gentle, considerate and empathetic with one another will be crucial as we return back to campus.

Reflections from the Peer Ambassadors

All of us Peer Ambassadors greatly enjoyed the process of designing, planning and running this event. In addition to working as a team to make this event happen, we each found different aspects of our work that stood out to us:

Christina Lam: The event felt like an open and productive space where attendees, speakers and volunteers had come together to discuss ideas and share their opinions. It was particularly heartwarming to hear many of the participants acknowledge the importance of remaining flexible and compassionate as we move forward into the future of education.

Gabrielle Wong: The discussions at this event were both productive and insightful. What we heard from attendees may not have been exactly what we expected, but their ideas and concerns are all valuable. Thank you, everyone!

Haebin Pan: I’m grateful to be part of a project that helped to bring members of the school community together. It was great to listen to the meaningful discussions on the future of education at SFU. I was touched to see compassion and insight from the attendees and speakers during the event. I look forward to seeing SFU implementing suggestions from its community members as it moves forward to the fall semester.

Kary Ka Yiu Cheng: The event made me feel that I'm not alone in this whole remote learning situation. I love how the majority of us came to a conclusion that hybrid learning can provide flexibility in the future post-secondary education system.

Alyanna Thornton: In addition to being able to experience this journey with all the Peers, it was heartwarming to see the passion and care from all the attendees that joined us. Overall, I think it’s important for every student to remember that this is a moment to pivot from the old “normal” and create a new way to learn moving forward.


Overall, here are a few key takeaways from the valuable discussions and insight that we heard at Zooming In: Education in 2021.

  • Many members of the SFU community are anxious about the return to in-person education.
  • There is high interest in exploring alternative options, such as hybrid learning (with some students learning remotely, and others in person).
  • When COVID-19 eventually is not a public health concern anymore, some aspects of the flexibility of remote education could be worth carrying forward.


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