I am lucky enough to have been able to do the entire fall semester from the comfort of my home. A typical school day for me meant waking up at whatever time sans alarm, brewing a whole pot of coffee for myself, plopping down at my solitary desk in front of my big fourth floor window overlooking a quiet street, and throwing on Steely Dan’s 1972 masterpiece Can’t Buy A Thrill while I write article after article like this one. There were no bus schedules to worry about, no textbooks to haul across campus, and of course, no viruses to contract outside of my bimonthly tactical trips to the grocery store.
I didn’t just have the benefit of all my classes fitting within the bulk of courses delivered online. The majority of my professors also decided they would not be doing live video lectures. Aside from a single hour-long block on Wednesday afternoon, and exams towards the end, I essentially had no weekly schedule.
Classes like these still have lectures of course, but they take the surely familiar form of narrated powerpoint presentations or video recordings to be viewed at your leisure. Then, there are all the replacement tasks: weekly written reflections on the lectures to replace attendance grades, extra readings instead of class discussions, random mid-semester Zoom check-ins, and mandatory Blackboard discussion boards. Though it’s possible, I don’t think I imagined the excess workload of small, out-of-class activities that are supposed to be a stand-in for the act of going to class, I guess. Instead of active learning, there was a functionally endless list of undifferentiated chores, dripping out at a steady pace like the most annoying leaky faucet in the world.
With regular assignments added in, remote university is an unstructured mess. There are constant deadlines for which students are more responsible than ever to schedule and organize on their own. For many, the school day now consists of choosing which lectures to download, teaching yourself their material, figuring out which of the remaining hours of the day are best spent on each tiny assignment worth one per cent of your final grade, and finding time to finish all of the expected essays and projects in between. There is less opportunity for feedback — no professor to show your work-in-progress to, and nobody sitting in the desk behind you to ask what the hell is going on.
While my own lack of schedule was nice as a concept, what I ended up with was the extra stress of making my own schedule — admittedly involving cramming six hours’ worth of video lectures for one class the night before an exam on more than one occasion — with many more items to organize than pre-coronavirus semesters. First-year students have it much worse, I’m sure, not having even a frame of reference for a typical university workload in the first place.
Even though MacEwan University announced that more courses overall would be delivered in-person or using a hybrid model this time around, remote university is probably going to be around for a while. That’s good. Schools seem to be simply too unsafe to open up. But, a lot more work needs to be put into how online classes are formatted.