EVA ZHU – Last month, millions of students frantically packed to go home as universities made the abrupt decision to move courses online to curb the spread of COVID-19.
On March 11th, the World Health Organization labelled COVID-19 a pandemic. The next day, universities across Canada began cancelling in-person classes. By March 16th, almost every single university and college had cancelled in-person classes for the rest of the term.
Students moved their learning home. Professors prepared to host their courses on Zoom and other video-calling software. They modified syllabuses and made final exams online and open book. Many even cancelled their finals, opting to instead create one or two more end-of-term assignments.
Challenges of at-home learning
While the sudden change in pace might not be a big deal to most people, students who need in-person interactions to learn effectively are having a difficult time finishing assignments.
Ian Michel, a fourth-year Physical Geography student at Simon Fraser University, finds online learning frustrating. He says while his professors have been doing well, uploading their notes and recorded video classes on to Canvas (SFU’s central learning system), it doesn’t feel the same as sitting in an in-person seminar.
Michel says he lacks intrinsic motivation, so having his professors in the same room positively affects his intake of new information. “I think it makes a big difference now, just in terms of being able to pay attention and focus on the material,” he explains.
He says he’s completes most of his work in the breaks between classes. The limited time before the start of another seminar motivates him to stay focused.
When all the material is online, that time limit disappears. Michel says he’ll usually wake up whenever he feels like, procrastinate by watching a movie or reading a book, then later in the day, he might log onto Canvas to watch a lecture.
He thinks having professors hold lectures on Zoom might help with the lack of motivation and focus, but he understands the logistics of making that work on such short notice. One of his Teaching Assistants hosts online lab sessions on Zoom, and Michel notices he pays more attention.
Jesse Hawker, a sixth-year student at the University of British Columbia pursuing a Linguistics and Asian Studies double major, has also been lacking motivation to complete assignments. He says while having deadlines means he still hands in his homework, he cares about it a lot less now.
As someone who doesn’t study well by himself, he liked to work alongside friends who kept him focused. Now, with social distancing laws in effect, that’s no longer an option.
Hawker says because his professors have dumbed down their projects, his procrastination has become even worse.
For his film class, all he had to do was watch and take notes on five movies. But since he was not motivated to watch any of them, he was still scrambling to finish the assignment the night it was due.
One of the other main issues with learning at home is the lack of collaboration. Each of Michel’s courses has a mandatory laboratory component where group discussion is highly encouraged. He is so used having classmates to quickly bounce questions off when he’s stumped by an assignment that he now feels a little lost.
Although his professors are still available to provide answers and feedback, Michel feels like the time he spends waiting for a reply to a one-sentence email could be used to work on something else. Before, it was easy for him to ask a quick question during a professor’s office hours.
This communication barrier has caused Michel to spend much longer on an assignment, getting a lot less done. Looking annoyed, he says, “I’ll be sitting there stumped and I know I’m missing something obvious. It takes like 30 seconds to talk to a prof and figure it out. But then I just have to sit there and work on it for like half an hour until I realize what the problem is.”
Sometimes, he says it does feel rewarding when he finally has that “eureka” moment, but more often than not, sitting there wondering where he made a mistake causes him to feel dumb.
To help students who feel overwhelmed by the added stress and anxiety online learning may cause, many universities have implemented a pass/fail system for the 2020 winter/spring semester. CBC reported that more than 40 per cent of Canadian universities have opted for this system. Among others, these include: Mount Allison University, Simon Fraser University, St. Thomas University, the University of Alberta, the University of Manitoba, the University of New Brunswick, Western University and the University of British Columbia.
To Ryan Vansickle, a second-year Computer Science student at SFU, having this option relieves quite a bit of stress. He says because the Applied Science faculty heavily relies on curving students’ grades, as the class average is often too low for faculty standards, some students’ grades get lower marks than they should. This way, students with low letter grades can choose the “pass” option instead.
Vansickle says he’s not really affected by school being moved online, as he rarely attends any of his lectures. However, he recognizes that students who do attend every single lecture and use on campus resources will struggle quite a bit.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like working online or have [outdated] computers. There are also people who use [the computer lab], that’s the big one. These people are used to doing things on campus and don’t have that option anymore. People can’t get together in the library and help each other with assignments.”
It’s very easy for Vansickle to imagine how this situation could worsen students’ grades, so he’s confident that “someone somewhere is being screwed over by this.” He believes SFU making this semester pass/fail is the fair decision.
Hawker says while UBC has also implemented a pass/fail system for this semester, he won’t be able to benefit from it.
He was recently admitted to the University of Victoria’s Master of Arts in Linguistics program and needs to maintain a B average to keep his spot in the program. He says the pass/fail system only helps students who have no plans to continue their education, even though all students are similarly affected.
A disappointing final semester
This is Hawker’s and Michel’s final semester as undergraduate students.
Since neither prepared for a global public health pandemic, they both voiced similar feelings of disappointment.
Hawker says he wishes he could have thanked his favourite professors for helping him find his passion for linguistics. He says if “they weren’t such awesome people right from the onset, I probably wouldn’t have even pursued this major that I’ve come to like so much.”
It’s also hard for Hawker to come to terms with never seeing some of his friends again. Being in Asian Studies, he’s befriended many international students who he says will “go back to their homelands forever.” He says that even if they do come back to visit, he’ll be in Victoria.
Not being able to say goodbye to friends didn’t click for Michel until recently. Chuckling, he says, “The first week [school closed], I was like, ‘okay, whatever, we’re doing online classes.’ It wasn’t until I saw one of my friends post on Facebook about her last official university lecture that it hit me.”
The loss of field trips has upset Michel more than any other aspect of online schooling. He was looking forward to a weekend up at the Thompson River for his river geomorphology class. His professor turned this final field trip of his degree into a research paper.
The closing of schools also means spring convocation ceremonies are cancelled. To Michel, who plans to stay in Vancouver, delaying his walk across the stage isn’t a big deal.
By the time fall rolls around for Hawker, he’ll be living in Victoria, unable to attend a future convocation ceremony. He had been looking forward to this rite of passage since starting university, and he’s devastated to not get the full experience. After being in university for six years, he says he was really hoping to have his family watch him walk across the stage, take pictures with friends and receive a bouquet of flowers.
He says he’s grateful UBC will be giving students a virtual spring ceremony, but it’s still a huge blow. “Just getting my degree in the mail and seeing the UBC president on a webcam say, ‘good job Jesse!’ is not going to be the same thing.”
Effects on students’ mental health
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, going out for lunch with friends or seeing them on campus was a daily occurrence for students. Video calls are now the only way to stay in touch with each other.
Seeing friends was a huge part of Michel’s daily life. He played minor league rugby and spent every weekend at a friend’s house competing in tabletop game tournaments. Without these in-person social interactions that gets him out of the house, he’s been feeling incredibly lethargic.
Vansickle also misses people. He used to spend time with his friends on campus and go for sushi with them between classes, but since he doesn’t leave his house anymore, he’s been feeling depressed and dissociated from reality.
“The days really blend together when you never leave the house. I haven’t seen the sun in 20 something days,” Vansickle says.
Making the best of it
While the switch is taking a massive toll on students’ mental health and grades, they’re thankful that universities are listening and exercising compassion in this difficult period.
They hope things will get better and they can return to their pre-COVID lives.
This article was originally published on Eva Zhu’s Website.