Ryerson has turned to automated assessment tools like Respondus LockDown Browser and Monitor to prevent cheating. But is virtual proctoring software truly worth the cost?
Rayyan Akhtar hasn’t experienced a normal university exam yet — but he has a good idea of what it shouldn’t feel like.
The first-year Ryerson University business management student writes all of his exams from a computer niche in his home. Every so often, during a typical test, Akhtar will get lost in a tough math problem and dip his head down to solve it in his notebook. This triggers a pop-up notification that orders him to bring his head back into the frame. When Akhtar catches sight of it, he feels a jolt of panic and loses focus.
“I’m thinking, man, is this going to invalidate my exam? Am I going to get charged with academic misconduct?”
Ryerson argues this software helps to prevent cheating and ensures academic integrity. Some students, however, find it acutely anxiety-inducing during an already difficult period.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada in mid-March, nearly all Ryerson courses and exams have been delivered online. In an effort to mitigate cheating during virtual tests, the school has turned to Respondus’s automated proctoring technology. According to the U.S.-based e-learning company, its Respondus Monitor software is employed by over 1,000 higher learning institutions, who will use it to proctor over 20 million exams this year. Its LockDown Browser tech is even more popular, despite its 1.3 star (out of five) rating on the App Store.
The sudden shift to online learning has been tough for a lot of university students. Almost two-thirds of Canadian students say it has negatively impacted the quality of their education, due in part to a lack of interaction and engagement with professors. Student mental health has also deteriorated amid the pandemic. A recent Toronto Star investigation found that COVID-19 increased depression levels among Canadian post-secondary students by 35 per cent.
Akhtar thinks the company’s “invasive” software has been “an additional unnecessary stressor in a time where university students across the globe have already been cut a horrible deal.”
Other students are also wary of Respondus’s system.
“The proctoring system is just really stressful,” said Kennedy Byron, a second-year social work student who has used Respondus for two exams so far this year. “I’m typing on my laptop and the little thing would come up like ‘bring your eyes up to the screen again or don’t look away.’ It’s just anxiety-inducing… it’s always watching you, and you don’t really know who’s watching.”
Students demand Ryerson ban Respondus
A recent Change.org petition calling for Ryerson to stop the use of LockDown Browser during exams has garnered 1,195 signatures as of Nov. 26. Created by “RU Students,” the petition refers to Respondus’s proctoring tech as “invasive spyware,” and argues that taking a test “while being recorded and having (your) browser locked adds enormous stress and anxiety to the exam.”
Student bodies at several other Canadian universities have also voiced similar concerns. The University of Manitoba’s student union board of directors voted unanimously to oppose the use of Respondus Monitor at their school after students raised issues about personal privacy, accessibility for students with disabilities and the risk of false positives. At the University of Ottawa, in response to the implementation of Respondus Monitor, a petition to “stop using harmful proctoring software” has received nearly 2,700 signatures.
Ryerson University president Mohamed Lachemi told the Ryersonian it was important for Ryerson to offer its instructors a means of automated virtual proctoring for online exams, adding that he views software like Respondus LockDown Browser and Monitor as a deterrent to some forms of academic misconduct.
Lachemi said he is aware of the petition and student concerns regarding the use of Respondus’s tech, but did not specify how the school might address them, instead deferring to Ryerson’s existing policies.
“It has been our aim to ensure that faculty and instructors engage in the most appropriate usage of this software,” said Lachemi, stressing that faculty and instructors “are being strongly encouraged to find alternative forms of assessment and to adopt automated virtual proctoring only if absolutely necessary.”
The shift to online exams has impacted students in a range of ways
For Samantha Tome, the adjustment to online exam-taking has been difficult. The fifth-year biomedical sciences student is the group mentoring lead for Students with Disabilities, a student support group at Ryerson.
As a student with an anxiety disorder, Tome is registered with Ryerson’s Academic Accommodation Support. Prior to the pandemic, she would write her tests in a small, quiet room in the basement of the Victoria Building. This arrangement helped ease her test anxiety. Today, she writes all of her exams from home, where it’s tougher to achieve the same level of peace.
“There is often noise that I cannot control, such as my dog suddenly barking, or my home phone suddenly ringing,” she said. “Distractions are everywhere, no matter what room I go into.”
“As someone who already struggles with horrible test anxiety, having this software would be a detriment to my education,” said Samantha Tome, a fifth-year Ryerson biomedical sciences student.
Although she hasn’t personally encountered Respondus’s software, Tome opposes its use, calling it “anxiety-inducing in a time when there should be more leniency and understanding,” in a comment she left on the Change.org petition.
“As someone who already struggles with horrible test anxiety, having this software would be a detriment to my education,” said Tome, who thinks the associated stress would decrease her academic performance and negatively impact her mental health.
Does automated proctoring software actually prevent cheating?
While students find proctoring software anxiety-inducing, some evidence suggests that it’s effective in upholding academic integrity. According to a 2017 study from Miami University, students whose tests were proctored with video monitoring scored on average 17 points lower than students who took the same tests with no proctoring. The researchers concluded that such a discrepancy might be due to the fact that video monitoring deters cheating.
The Washington Post reported that the failure of universities to pay for adequate proctoring services has led to increased levels of cheating during the pandemic. But other studies indicate that even in the presence of such software, three out of four students say it’s easier to cheat during an online test than an in-person test.
Most proctoring systems also have limitations. For example, they might not be able to identify if students have a second computer present, which could allow them to search the internet for answers.
In 2020, exam proctoring service company ProctorU reported less than one per cent of 340,000 in-person test takers cheated between January and March. The company later reported that over the course of the following three months — when universities were forced to begin administering tests virtually — eight per cent of 1.3 million test takers cheated.
Byron thinks a student who is creative and willing to break the rules could easily outsmart a proctoring system and cheat.
“Students could discuss with people on the sidelines (while taking an online test),” she said.
Mitigating cheating probably has less to do with strict surveillance, Byron said, and more to do with the type of test administered, because the qualitative nature of her exams does a better job of discouraging her from copying answers than a proctoring system.
“We don’t have ‘what is question A and what is question B (on our exams).’ It’s more essays,” she said.
Faculty and instructors should strive to “reduce the need for high-stakes exams and tests,” said members of Ryerson’s Centre for Excellence in Learning (CELT) and Teaching and the Academic Integrity Office (AIO) — responsible for the school’s transition to online learning — in an email to the Ryersonian.
Ryerson gives its instructors the discretion to decide whether the use of Respondus’s software is warranted. To ensure academic integrity during online exams, the group recommends that Ryerson instructors use “the simplest option that makes sense for their course,” adopt technology that is well-known to both students and themselves, and apply automated virtual proctoring “only if deemed absolutely necessary for assessment.”
Neither CELT nor the AIO would comment on how online exams or the use of this software has affected the rate of academic misconduct since they don’t have “all the information.”
How equitable is this tech?
Akhtar said he is privileged to be able to pursue his education from home “without being that adversely affected by the pandemic,” but expressed concern for how this sort of proctoring software might impact students whose learning has been more directly affected by COVID-19.
“It’s just another layer of stress that is not needed at a time like this,” he said.
The petition mentions the “huge toll” the download-required software takes on device hardware and performance, and highlights that it requires a “quiet, secluded workspace,” a “good, stable Wi-Fi connection,” and a working webcam and microphone, which not all students have the ability to access for a variety of reasons.
“This one-size-fits-all approach to ensure academic integrity puts students who might already be struggling financially during a pandemic at a disadvantage,” said Rayyan Akhtar, a first-year Ryerson business management student.
Akhtar referred to its use as “inherently classist.”
“Ryerson assumes that all its students have adequate access to technology, stable internet connections and quiet spaces to work,” said Akhtar, even though students come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and, as a result, many lack these requirements.
“This one-size-fits-all approach to ensure academic integrity puts students who might already be struggling financially during a pandemic at a disadvantage.”
CELT and the AIO told the Ryersonian that the university has made efforts to address these issues and better facilitate the transition to virtual testing. The university cited its purchase of approximately 400 laptops for students in need and the continued availability of Academic Accommodation Support for those who require alternative test-taking arrangements.
“If access to required technology is a concern, students are encouraged to raise this with their instructors as soon as possible,” they stated.
In response to a question concerning what the university’s policy is when a student loses their internet connection during an online exam, they advised students to “contact their professors directly.”
Confidence in academic integrity might decrease pressure to cheat
In situations where formal examinations are required, a rigorous software that threatens to catch cheaters could have benefits.
“When students feel confident their classmates cannot easily cheat, they don’t feel the pressure to cheat themselves,” Jodi Feeney, Respondus’s chief operating officer, told the Ryersonian.
When asked, Feeney acknowledged student concerns surrounding the use of her company’s software. “We don’t want to diminish the stress everyone is experiencing as a result of this pandemic.”
But she also highlighted that exams have always “included an element of stress, regardless of the testing environment,” citing the stress associated with a professor walking around the classroom during an in-person exam.
“Most people agree — even students — that the only way to ensure the integrity of an online exam is to have some type of proctoring.”
Prior to the pandemic, when students were given the option of either using Respondus’ services or visiting an in-person test centre, Feeney said 98 per cent opted to use automated proctoring, putting the convenience of an online exam first.
“It was viewed as being more convenient than going to a testing centre,” she said.
Feeney claimed that “any decent proctoring solution will reduce cheating to roughly five to 10 per cent of examinees through deterrence alone.”
CELT and the AIO told the Ryersonian that they did not have enough information to determine whether cheating rates at Ryerson have changed since moving to online classes or adopting proctoring software.
Data privacy and security concerns
When taking a test with Respondus, it can be difficult to shake the sensation that you’re being watched. Given rising public awareness about the often questionable collection and storage of personal data by tech companies, some students wonder how their information is being used and stored.
“Apart from my prof, I have no idea who else has access to this information or the reputability of Respondus as a company for data security,” said Akhtar. “How long will the recordings of myself and photos of my ID be stored? Can Ryerson guarantee that my information is safe and won’t be sold for profit by Respondus?”
Feeney directed the Ryersonian to a document that summarizes the company’s practices regarding data privacy and security, and cited the support it has gained from universities because of them. The document claims that the company doesn’t sell or share student data.
“Over 1,100 universities have selected Respondus Monitor as their automated proctoring system — many after conducting detailed reviews of our security and privacy policies,” she said.
Feeney told the Ryersonian that the company’s system is fully automated, “so there isn’t a human watching the student during the exam.”
“We don’t drop in, we don’t review the video after — people think we’re doing that and we’re not,” said Respondus’s CEO David Smetters.
Respondus records exam sessions and, afterwards, only the student’s instructor has access to the proctoring information and video, said Feeney. She added that the company’s AI doesn’t measure the occurrence of cheating, nor indicate that it has taken place. Instead, it identifies anomalies in student behaviour, generates a report summarizing these findings, and shares this report with the student’s instructor, alongside the video and audio recordings for reference. Respondus then leaves it up to the professor to review said materials and “decide whether an examination rule has been violated.”
“We don’t drop in, we don’t review the video after — people think we’re doing that and we’re not,” Respondus’s CEO David Smetters told The New York Times.
According to Ryerson’s agreements with Respondus, Ryerson owns and controls its students’ proctoring data, and the school has “an institutionally endorsed agreement with Respondus that confirms information technology security and privacy.”
Feeney cited live proctoring via web conferencing as a potential alternative to the use of her company’s software. However, Ryerson recommends against this practice due to privacy concerns. “There is no way to ensure student privacy with Zoom,” wrote the school. Live proctoring through Zoom or another similar platform would require students to turn on their webcams, enabling them “to see everyone else and their surroundings,” including during the identification verification process, posing a privacy risk to students.
Alternative methods of testing
Some instructors have found ways to administer exams while doing away with proctoring systems altogether.
This semester, Laurel Walzak, an assistant professor at the RTA School of Media who teaches a 200-level sport marketing course, chose to allow her 82 students to collaborate in groups for their final exam. She tested the approach during a recent midterm and saw no evidence of cheating.
“I told them they could talk amongst each other… because I didn’t want them to have the feeling of, ‘if I didn’t understand the question and I speak to a friend, am I cheating?’ so I just took that element away.”
Walzak said she plans to steer clear of multiple choice and true-or-false exams this December.
“I wanted to take away the temptation to cheat, though I think the temptation is very low. What I gave them was a problem, a real-life problem that they would have to take the knowledge from this course to solve.”
Ultimately, no solid timeline exists for a return to in-person classes and exams at Ryerson, an institution nestled inside one of Canada’s hottest COVID-19 zones.
Ryerson has no current plans to stop using Respondus’s software to help deter cheating. In instances where it is deemed necessary by professors, students will simply have to trust that Respondus and Ryerson are respecting their privacy and taking care of their personal data. In turn, flexibility by professors could limit the need for this software.
Despite students’ concerns, Ryerson has no current plans to stop using Respondus’s software.
Adopting more qualitative testing methods, as Walzak did, is one possible alternative for professors that could both ensure academic integrity and demonstrate greater understanding for their students.
But in light of the unique circumstances surrounding COVID-19, Tome said she thinks the university should ban the proctoring software altogether, and instead make alternate exam proctoring arrangements.
“I think I can speak for many students when I say it is unfair to treat our tests and this school year in general like a normal test or school year, because it’s not one. And we should therefore make accommodations … in order to ensure not only the success of our students but also to maintain their mental health.”
Amid the dropping temperatures and the tightening of public health guidelines, Ryerson students hope to stay fit and preserve good mental health throughout the winter months
A global pandemic was more than enough to get Owen Zilles to start exercising daily.
The second-year photography student from Kitchener, Ont., did not frequent the gym last year as a freshman. But as the 2020 winter semester was ending, and Toronto entered its first COVID-19 lockdown, Zilles bought himself a pull-up bar and started doing daily bodyweight exercises inside his Pitman Hall residence to achieve some sense of regularity.
“That boredom, that lack of routine — exercise is how I coped with that,” he said.
Like Zilles, many students at Ryerson have turned to physical activity as a healthy way to cope with the mundanity of the pandemic. But now that indoor fitness facilities have closed down once again (including those on Ryerson’s campus), and as we hurtle towards the year’s darkest and most frigid months, students living in downtown Toronto hope to continue finding ways to stay active and sane throughout the winter.
In a Wednesday press conference, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced that the city is taking steps to make safe, outdoor physical activity available to its residents.
Under lockdown conditions, said Tory, some of the city’s regular winter activity venues, like its 54 outdoor skating rinks (on reservation basis), its 23 tobogganing hills, its 57 winter tennis courts, and its eight disc golf courses will remain open.
The city will also create and maintain eight new walking and snowshoeing tracks on its five golf courses, launch new guided outdoor walk-fit programs, and plow and pave greater portions of 60 of its high-use parks. Tory said the recreation programming could be altered throughout the winter, as advised by Toronto Public Health.
Zilles is grateful that rinks will remain open.
“I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing indoor activities even if they were available,” he said, “but getting to skate and play hockey on Lake Devo will be nice.”
The city announced on Thursday that while ice skating will be permitted, “team sports, including hockey,” for the time being, will not be permitted on city rinks.
Despite some restrictions, students like Zilles who hope to stay active this winter will be met with encouragement from the city, whose signalling is much different than it had been in the spring. In the early pandemic months, public health officials recommended that residents stay inside their homes as much as possible. A few months after those initial lockdown orders, Ryerson University and others published a national study, which found that 64 per cent of children and youth were being less physically active than usual in the spring.
Howie Dayton, the city’s director of community recreation in Parks, Forestry and Recreation, said that an increasing body of knowledge around how COVID-19 is transmitted allows policy-makers to tailor restrictions so as to encourage safe and active living this time around.
“There is a public health recognition that people need physical activity and exercise,” said Dayton. “So we are creating many opportunities for people to get out of their houses.”
In regular times, one in five Canadians reported feeling “winter blues.” Research shows that physical activity could help mitigate these blues. A Swedish study involving almost 400,000 participants, found that ski racing in the winter was associated with lower long-term incidence of depression. To maintain strong mental health over the winter, Dayton recommends residents explore the city and be “safely adventurous.”
“Try something you have never done before — like skating or cross-country skiing at one of our snow loops we are creating at the golf course.”
Students who are less keen to join popular activities can find other ways to get fresh air. A large body of research suggests that simply being immersed in natural environments can improve mood and reduce stress. Shawn Micallef, an author and professor who writes about how people move around inside the Greater Toronto Area, said that, sometimes, a nice walk is all you need to recharge the mental battery and feel refreshed.
“Just bundling up and going for a short walk can make the outside seem less hostile,” he said. “Going in the morning when there is snow on the ground, there is nothing more bright — you get a huge injection of sunlight.”
Micallef recommends students who might feel trapped downtown to walk to Corktown Common, just southeast from the foot of Cherry Street. The park is filled with shrubs and built on a hill with a nice view of the city. From there, students can easily access the Don Valley Trail by walking north, or the Leslie Street Spit and Tommy Thompson Park by going south.
He also recommends students procure a crazy carpet from Canadian Tire and brave the tobogganing hills at Cabbagetown’s Riverdale Park.
“Sometimes you have to give people obvious things to nudge them out of what they think they can do.”
Elena De Luigi, a first-year master of journalism student, said she might follow Micallef’s advice and take advantage of some of the city’s new offerings.
De Luigi plans to move to Toronto from her home in St. Catharines, Ont., by January, but she still has reservations about moving mid-lockdown. It would involve transferring her current in-person sessions with a new personal trainer onto Zoom. Yet, she said the city’s new snowshoeing trails, organized walking opportunities and heightened maintenance of parks might make the transition back to Toronto a bit easier.
“I’ve integrated physical activity back into my life and I plan to find ways to keep exercising,” she said. “Being able to get a breath of fresh air is better than sitting at home.”
How to stay active this winter:
In this eighth episode of the fall season of Blue & Gold, we explore two stories outside of those that have dominated the news cycle.First, our video executive producer Deepak Bidwai speaks with author and academic Monia Mazigh, about Islamophobia in France and around the world. Then, host Nojoud Al Mallees chats with Brad Galloway, Coordinator at the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, on the rise in far-right extremism in the United States.Blue and Gold is a weekly podcast from the Ryersonian profiling each week’s top stories; created, hosted and produced by Jasmine Rach, Nojoud Al Mallees, Sidra Jafri and Alex Cyr.
The seventh episode of the fall season of Blue & Gold takes a dive into the world of varsity sports here at Ryerson. This fall, both the Ontario University Athletics conference and national sports governing body U SPORTS announced that all athletic events under their umbrella would be suspended until 2021. This week, our host Alex Cyr chats with Ryersonian sports editor Daniel Centeno about the stories he covered despite the cancellation of all varsity sports contests. Then we hear from Kaitlyn Wilson, a fifth year figure skater and OUA All-star who is learning to practice her sport in the absence of facilities. And finally, Ryersonian reporter Coby Zucker tells us about E-sports: the fastest growing – yet most misunderstood – sport offered at Ryerson. Blue and Gold is a weekly podcast from the Ryersonian profiling each week’s top stories; created, hosted and produced by Jasmine Rach, Nojoud Al Mallees, Sidra Jafri and Alex Cyr.
The sixth episode of the fall season of Blue & Gold looks at how dating has changed during the pandemic. This week, our host Sidra Jafri chats with students to learn about how their relationships and searches for love have been upended since March. We also speak with Jen Kirsch, a Ryerson graduate and relationship expert who shares her insights on how to find love and maintain the spark during these unusual times. Blue and Gold is a weekly podcast from the Ryersonian profiling each week’s top stories; created, hosted and produced by Jasmine Rach, Nojoud Al Mallees, Sidra Jafri and Alex Cyr.
Program’s timing bodes well amid rising need for health services due to COVID-19
Ryerson’s newest doctoral program is set to launch in January 2021.
The new PhD in urban health, offered by the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing (DCSN), will aim to explain how the urban context may impact health, and identify evidence-based strategies for addressing health-related issues.
Eventual students in the program will aim to solve these issues by integrating disciplines including nursing, medicine, social work and pharmacy, early childcare studies, geography, urban development and disability studies.
“Many programs touch on urban health, but this is the first one to be completely focused on it — it’s unique,” said Prof. Suzanne Fredericks, one of the program’s creators.
Fredericks, a professor at the DCSN and clinical scientist at the Toronto General Research Institute, said she and her team of co-founders — all esteemed professors, researchers or health clinicians — originally wanted to create a PhD program in nursing. However, the government of Ontario would not fund such a program, said Fredericks, because other universities in the province already offered a PhD in nursing. To secure funding, Ryerson’s new program would have to be novel and unique. Instead of giving up, Fredericks and the board went to work.
“We did an environmental scan and spoke with colleagues internationally,” she said. “We asked, ‘what program would be helpful in the Canadian context and global market?’ The evidence showed there was a need to study urban health.”
Urban health, said Fredericks, is a broad discipline, and sometimes one that can be difficult to neatly define.
“It can be tackling problems like homelessness or food insecurities,” she said, “but it can also be working with road safety, about the policies that exist around wearing a helmet on the road, or dealing with the health status of refugees… it can be more than just working with hospitals.”
Preparing students for a plethora of possible jobs and roles can be complicated, but Fredericks said her own extensive research makes her confident in the program. She and her team asked hospital CEOs across Ontario what they looked for in prospective employees.
“We showed them (our curriculum) and asked them, ‘would you hire a person who graduated from this program?’” said Fredericks. “’And if not, how can we create the ideal candidate?’ We made a program based on the characteristics they gave us.”
Fredericks said a key characteristic that is in high demand in the workplace is independent scientific thinking. As a result, one of the program’s main goals is to equip its students with the ability to understand abstract concepts and apply them to the rigours of research.
“We want to shape these students into scientists… who can eventually take on president or VP type positions.”
Five students will be admitted into the program in January of 2021, with the second wave scheduled for September 2022. The selection for the first cohort is ongoing. According to Fredericks, “it has been very competitive.”
In the program, students will be required to pass a candidacy exam and propose an original dissertation after their second year, and then to write and defend that dissertation by their fourth year.
Program director Christina Catallo said they are looking for four key attributes when selecting successful applicants.
“Someone who is a big picture thinker, is creative, and is concerned about the community and issues related to urban health,” she said. “Someone who understands that in order to solve a complex issue, you need many different voices at the table and cannot operate in a silo.”
Catallo, an associate professor who researches knowledge brokering practices among health-care organizations, said the main strength of the program is how it transcends disciplines that are traditionally thought of as separate. She said this level of integration is made possible by recruiting a combination of professors from faculties across campus. She said the wide range of expertise should grant eventual students the choice to tackle a wide range of projects.
And in the middle of a global pandemic, there is no shortage of urban health-related projects to tackle and problems to solve.
“The pandemic adds a different layer,” said Catallo. “Health inequities will only be exacerbated. We are seeing some new complexities, and old problems students try to address are becoming more faceted.”
The opioid crisis, homelessness and inequities within vulnerable populations are all problems Catallo hopes the program’s eventual students will tackle, locally and globally.
“The need for more health-related services is much higher than what we’ve planned for… and that’s true at the world level and the Toronto level… in that sense this program is developing at the right time.”
The fifth episode of the fall season of Blue & Gold is dedicated to the 2020 US Election – perhaps the most anticipated one in history. This week, our host Nojoud Al Mallees chats with young Canadians and Americans about the outcomes they hope to see on Tuesday and how they expect the election to impact their lives for the years to come. We also speak with Wayne Petrozzi, an expert in American Politics and Ryerson professor for his election predictions and analysis. Blue and Gold is a weekly podcast from the Ryersonian profiling each week’s top stories; created, hosted and produced by Jasmine Rach, Nojoud Al Mallees, Sidra Jafri and Alex Cyr.
In the fourth episode of the fall season of Blue & Gold, we explore Egerton Ryerson’s colonial legacy and how it’s affecting Ryerson University and its Indigenous community today. After the Ryersonian released our “Monumental Challenges” special edition all about statues and colonialism two weeks ago, valid claims were made that our reporting lacked Indigenous voices. In response to these claims, this podcast was reworked and re-examined before it was published to ensure those voices are heard.
Firstly, Jasmine delves into who Egerton Ryerson was, and why his statue stands on Ryerson University’s campus today.
Later, Dania speaks to Emily Peotto, a Ryersonian reporter who has published a story about the cost of not changing Ryerson’s name, and how a lack of change would affect Indigenous students.
Then, Sidra has all the details about the symbolism of the statue’s vandalism over the summer, why colonial statues across the world are being rethought and re-evaluated, and how the debate to remove Ryerson’s statue from campus began.
Next, Dania talks to Nicole Ineese-Nash, an Anishinaabe research associate at Ryerson University, and director of “Finding our Power Together,” a partnership between young people in First Nations communities and non-Indigenous allies. She speaks about her research involving issues of mental illness among Indigenous youth in Canada and how it relates to Ryerson’s debate about removing our colonial statue.
Dania also speaks with Maaz Khan, a Ryerson alum who started a petition back in June to remove Ryerson’s statue, which now has over 10,000 signatures. He tells us why he was driven to take action.
And finally Alex discusses the new task force assigned by Ryerson president Lachemi to examine Egerton Ryerson’s colonial legacy and its effect on the school.
Blue and Gold is a weekly podcast from the Ryersonian profiling each week’s top stories; created, hosted and produced by Jasmine Rach, Dania Ali, Sidra Jafri and Alex Cyr.
An increase in grant opportunities for pandemic-related projects has Ryerson researchers altering the focus of their work
A $300,000 research grant was enough to convince the dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Science, David Cramb, to put his research projects on pause and build a synthetic version of the novel coronavirus.
“Our lab didn’t do anything with viruses before COVID,” Cramb said, “but we saw this opportunity come along in May and we took it.”
Cramb and his research team put aside their other work on nanotechnology in biomedicine, and focused on preparing a proposal for the new Ryerson COVID-19 SRC Response Fund in June. The money is now helping them acquire materials to wreathe their new particle with spike proteins – those stick-like appendages seen in popular photos of the coronavirus – which Cramb said are incredibly rare and expensive.
“We’re fortunate to get the grant, because so many researchers have pivoted towards COVID-19 projects,” he said. “At the same time, there is lots more funding available if you’re doing this kind of research right now.”
For Canadian researchers, preparing a proposal that relates to the pandemic is a well-calculated move. The Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) has so far invested $55 million towards its (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding, and a total of 100 grants have been awarded for research in medical, social and policy countermeasures.
For Cramb, already an expert in nanoparticles, working on a virus was an intuitive shift. For other researchers, however, COVID-19 research can be a far reach.
Dan Horner, a historian of Canadian politics in Ryerson’s department of criminology, was researching how marginalized communities in mid 19th century Montreal played a role in the city’s growth when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
Horner said he feels fortunate to have applied for his funding in late 2019, and foresees that both a continued favouring of COVID-19 research and an ensuing recession could mean difficult times ahead for researchers in his field.
A new study of more than 2,500 academics from the U.K. found that 40 per cent of researchers share Horner’s thought, saying the pandemic has undermined their confidence in applying for grants that are not focused on COVID-19, and would mean less funding and attention for some of the other major challenges that humanity faces. Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science told insidehighered.com that he anticipates the continuing pause in research of other major problems, such as climate change, inequality and other diseases, could be costly for the researchers and advancement of those fields.
“That being said,” said Horner, “academics are good at making their projects and interests fit the mood of the times.”
Horner himself is now reflecting on how his work might inform more timely research. His project examines urban growth, social cohesion and public health which, he said, could all lead to important findings.
“In my work I end up looking at reactions to outbreaks and epidemic diseases — they were commonplace in the 19th century,” he said.
Horner also said this pressure for researchers to alter their focus based on social change happens quite often.
“Generally, (funding agencies) want to favour things that are timely and relevant, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “After 9/11, there was a lot of funding for research that touched on security in some way. When Harper became prime minister, he directed funding towards business and prosperity.”
Richard McCulloch, executive director of research services at Ryerson, said the university boasts strengths across disciplines that can continue to generate research useful to the pandemic.
“We have a constellation of urban health and wellness researchers who have pivoted their focus to COVID research, with a strong focus on city building in pandemic times,” McCulloch said.
McCulloch also pointed to the university’s strong focus on Indigenous research for providing advances in serving underprivileged communities.
Prof. Eric Liberda, a toxicology and aboriginal health researcher, has funding to develop tools and techniques to help remote Indigenous communities fabricate their own PPE.
Additionally, Claire Oswald, a professor in the geography and environmental studies department, has funding to create a system that monitors wastewater drainage networks for early COVID-19 detection.
Josephine Wong, a professor at Ryerson and reviewer with CIHR, said that between February and June, the majority of grant money went to research projects directly related to COVID-19. Now, she said, pandemic-specific proposals do not dominate the approved list as much as they used to, but health-related research continues to be prioritized by her reviewing board.
“Things are slowly transitioning back to the regular distribution (of funding),” Wong said. “Still, we want to fund research in health, but also in areas that could impact health, like climate change — many biologists say that might increase the risk of more pandemics.
“The second part,” she said, “is we want to fund research that can be done online and that will not be limited by any pandemics. We don’t know when this pandemic will end and we don’t know when the next one will start.”