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University students hope for pandemic learning options to continue when in-person classes return

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With most Canadian universities preparing to return students to in-person learning for the fall 2021 semester, some students hope that aspects of pandemic learning will continue to be offered. 

With students now ending their 2021 winter semester, it has now been over a year since most post-secondary classes moved to online or hybrid delivery (a combination of online and in-person learning). As the federal government is hoping to vaccinate most Canadians by the end of the fall, post-secondary in-person education looks to be a returning reality for most universities. 

Like NAIT’s Maddison Buhler, some students are frustrated by the inconsistency of the online delivery system. “We are struggling! Online lectures are slowly making students go insane. It’s hard to try and teach yourself lessons cause you don’t understand the information that is being taught,” said Buhler. 

Maddison Buhler studies for her third EMT exam.

While online delivery of courses has been inconsistent and frustrating for some students, other students believe there have been positive aspects to pandemic learning. Scott Webb, a bachelor of arts student at MacEwan University, admits the transition to online learning was hard at first, but the benefits exceeded the cons. 

“This year has been hard for everyone throughout the pandemic, but personally, I found that the pandemic allowed me to successfully plan my own schedule and give me time to do things I love, such as getting into working out instead of commuting hours to school as I live far. I found online learning tough at first, but it is definitely a skill of discipline. I hope I can return to campus again, but this year has opened my eyes to other opportunities and methods of learning,” said Webb. 

Though online education hasn’t been for everyone, for some students, online learning has had positive benefits on their mental health. A large factor is taking out the commute of travelling to and from university. This factor has given students the much-needed extra time to focus on their studies or other life priorities. “I have to travel an hour and a half by bus to get to my school, so not having to leave my house to go to class was pretty fun,” said Gabrielle Cimon, an English Literature student at Ottawa’s Carleton University. 

Jesse Farebrother, a student at the University of Alberta, says the same. “It is (draining) to have to commute and wake up at a decent time. I don’t know what it is, but that just takes so much out of me. I’d get there, and I don’t even want to do anything anymore,” Farebrother said. “Not to mention not having to worry about what am I gonna bring for lunch? Am I going to spend money on lunch? What am I going to eat? I can just go downstairs and make whatever I want. I have access to my entire fridge.” 

Other factors such as avoiding the dread of entering crowded lecture halls or the general cliques of social groups have been other key benefits when learning online. Most significantly, learning at home has also provided the familiarity and relaxation of a comfortable learning environment. For some students, online learning has provided a safe space where they can fully engage with the content being taught. Though some students miss the face-to-face interaction with their peers and professors, others find online learning has helped them approach other students and interact with the classroom more easily.

Shashank Bhat, another student at the University of Alberta, describes how these factors attributed to in-person delivery deters from his learning experience. 

“I will say that it’s a lot easier to interact with people in online classes because it is through a text chat forum,” said Bhat. “With the online forum, a lot of my courses now have Discord servers dedicated to them where the entire class can hang out and discuss certain topics. That was present in in-person class as well, just not to the same degree. I am now a part of a study group with students I have never met before, and I most certainly would not have joined that if it was in person.”

For students with disabilities, online classes have led to higher accessibility and, ultimately, higher grades. “I think the pandemic proved that greater accommodation is necessary, and this is incredibly important when it comes to students with disabilities,” said MacEwan University student Victoria Power. “Having alternative options like online lectures, I’m sure, would benefit everyone in some way.” 

A student — who asked their identity to remain anonymous — with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) shares their experience. 

“I have ADHD. I can’t focus well, and so one of the hardest things for me was going to (the) lecture. I get behind and stuff because I wouldn’t pay attention — there’s no way to catch up. You can’t watch a pre-recorded lecture. And so, one of the biggest things for me is being able to watch these videos at home. For some lectures that are a little slower than I’d like, putting it on 1.5, 1.75 video speed … it just works on my wavelength in a way. It just helps me stay focused on things.” 

To the degree of difficulty online learning has provided, most students agree their faculty and professors have stepped up to the plate to provide support. Whether through online counselling services, academic advising, check-in surveys, or even professors willing to provide more time for assignments, students have generally felt supported continuing their education during the pandemic. “Personally, my professors have stepped up to support their students, which I know is just because they’re awesome people,” explains Power. “I know there have also been many surveys to continually check in on where students are at with the university’s approaches. Friends of mine have also taken advantage of the counselling services offered by the university.” 

Regardless of the need to return to in-person delivery, safety is still the most significant concern among students. From a student perspective, it is clear that universities must prioritize student safety above everything else. “I think the University can help students by letting them know that they will be safe at MacEwan and they are following protocols regarding the pandemic,” said Webb. “Maybe the University could even do more seminars to discuss meetings or getting to know the school and everything as they usually do.” 

Though it is unclear if pandemic learning methods will be fully adopted by universities when all in-person classes resume, most students hope online accommodations can continue for the future. Some universities like the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto have implemented numerous online-only courses before the pandemic (massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs). However, students hope the delineation between online and in-person courses become more hybridized. Webb commented, “I wouldn’t mind some classes being online and some in person. I personally like the idea that courses are more fast-paced as you could complete a degree quicker, but I do think in person is crucial for understanding your material fully if you struggle over the computer.”

Though some students hope classes stay online, the need for a middle ground is glaringly apparent. As all students learn and absorb material differently, the pandemic showcased some crucial lessons that universities can implement to help their students succeed. “I think the biggest takeaway is just people are different; people learn differently,” said Farebrother. “I…think if it wasn’t (sic) for the pandemic, they wouldn’t have even tried this format. 

“And so being forced to do this, (universities) now see some of the benefits and you know, there’s (sic) obviously some downsides. Let’s try to meet in the middle and take the best of both worlds, and we can all come out better.”

For more information on COVID, you can visit the Government of Canada Website here.

For more information on MacEwan’s COVID protocols, click here.
For more information on the University of Alberta’s COVID protocols, click here.

Photos courtesy of Jason Husak and Maddison Buhler

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