Photo Credit: Gabriel Benois via Unsplash
Volunteer Contributors – Francesca Mangiapane & Emily Meyer
The COVID-19 pandemic has skewed many plans for university students this year. Brock students are attending university from all over the world. We have compiled interviews of first-year students who are living in areas that range from on-campus residence, renting a home nearby, or at home. Students are located throughout Ontario, out of province, or outside of Canada. We, Emily and Francesca, are in our first year of the Concurrent Education program and would like to share our opinions and findings on a first-year student’s experience of attending university online.
Online university. Who would’ve thought we could adapt so quickly to something that seemed so difficult. Online schooling has its barriers, sure, but it also offers a variety of “bonuses”. Perhaps the most obvious “bonus,” is the adjustment. Though a lot of us envisioned the excitement of starting a new life at Brock, it’s no surprise that it was coupled with nervousness; anxiety even. For many of us, in-person classes would mean moving to a new city, surrounded by new people and though the experience can seem exciting from afar, the unfamiliarity can steadily begin to feel overwhelming, especially when combined with the stress of school.
We speak for ourselves, but also for many, when we say that we felt much less anxious for the first day because we had the comfort and familiarity of our own homes. We did not have to worry about having to be able to find a specific classroom or feel the pressure of where we should sit during lectures. We didn’t even have to worry about making a minimal note-taking strategy to ensure an accessible setup on the small tabletop or to catch each word that comes out of the professor’s mouth.
So, let’s assess. At the root of the perks of online university is stress. As students, we know this word very well and how we experience it. Logan Smith, a first-year student in the Concurrent Education Primary/Junior program, stated that being able to have her family nearby makes her feel comforted and can alleviate some of the stress she feels. Instead of having the looming pressure of preparing for an important test or midterm that would normally be written in a new environment, we are able to have the direct support of our family and write it in a space that we find comfortable. You could roll out of bed and write it in your pajamas if you’d like!
Another added benefit of online school is being able to pause, rewind and revisit lectures to ensure that you never miss an important point. Instead of having to rely on fragmented information registered between you and your classmates, you can easily refer to the direct source for key information, which can be a lifesaver at times.
One of the main features of online school encompasses the notion that instead of attending class at a certain time, it can be tackled at your own pace. This method of learning is called “asynchronous,” where the content is available for viewing all the time. “Synchronous” classes on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They are scheduled, live classes that generally run once per week―depending on the course―and offer an opportunity for students to ask their instructor questions screen-to-screen.
Out of the five first year students we interviewed for this article, they reported that the majority of their classes run asynchronously, with only one or two synchronous courses to compile their five course total. Meaning, that the majority of students are able to watch lectures and complete their readings, tests, assignments and midterms according to a schedule that best fits their lifestyle. For some, that may mean working well into the late hours of the night because that’s the time you focus best, and sleep in later to rest up; you ultimately control your schedule.
On the flip side, students also seem to prefer an equal balance between synchronous and asynchronous classes to be able to interact with their classmates and instructors. An international student from France, Pierre de Putron, mentioned this possibility since “With school entirely online, you don’t really get to meet anyone,” and that he “would prefer… attending more synchronous classes” for social possibilities.
Another added benefit of online schooling is that it saves money. Sure, a new, reliable laptop may be an added expense, but it also makes for a worthy investment. During the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hassle for commuting, or living closer to campus for the school year is pretty well non-existent. Being at home also reduces your risk of catching COVID-19. Instead of being exposed to hundreds of people per day, in buildings that have housed thousands, our homes have become our main study space.
Assuming that you’re a student yourself, you’ve probably been nodding your head in agreement and understand all that online schooling has to offer. Many may argue however, that while it is an idea that looks presentable on paper, it can be very difficult for students who are used to the structure and sociability of the in-person school environment. Am I suggesting that university should be made entirely online for future years? No, of course not. Perhaps we are suggesting that the major drawback to online school is how isolated it can make a student feel. While many positive experiences result from learning at home, there are also some disadvantages. As first years, we are experiencing new challenges in terms of the social aspect with friends and instructors, especially with club and sport teams only being offered virtually. There is a disconnection that can be only remedied by connecting through our screens. With that, let’s discuss the cons of online university.
One of the main highlights of starting university is getting to meet new people and creating lifetime friendships. Sadly with being online, it is very challenging to make those connections simply through social media and not getting to see people in person. In the survey we conducted, 88 per cent of the students voted that they feel they are missing out on meeting new people and creating these bonds. Thinking ahead to next year, it is also difficult to choose who you would want to live with. Currently, only 14 per cent of first-year students know for sure who they want to live with. By mainly communicating with other students through text messages or Facetime it is a very new experience building friendships this way. It is hard to trust someone when you have never met them in person, despite how open you may be to meeting new people. Smith commented that “You could be talking with someone and you don’t really know if they are your friend or not.” Although we have this barrier, we are still fortunate to have technology that can allow us to connect on some level.
Another challenge with doing university online is that we don’t get to see our professors and teaching assistants (TAs) in person. The only way we can communicate with them is through email and virtual office hours. The challenge with this is that we don’t get to talk to them in class, which takes away the in-person connection we could have built. By only being able to communicate with them these ways, some students have come across challenges.
Based on our interviews, some students stated that they are sometimes worried to email their TAs because they fear that their question will be dismissed or that they may not receive a response in time. Amy Bettencourt, a first-year in the Child and Youth Studies program, said that “When you go to email them, they’re not always on their email so they take a while to respond, or when you need a question answered ASAP, you just don’t get it in time.” We do not expect the TAs to constantly be checking their emails for us but emails can also be missed, meaning questions may not be answered in time.
Also, with most lectures and seminars being replaced by Sakai, you don’t get to communicate with as many people. For most forum posts, you are required to reply to at least one other person in your seminar, but this is not the same as being in a class and discussing your thoughts with one another.
With everything being virtual this year, it has created some barriers. Although they are trying to run clubs and events from home it is still not the same. Bettencourt said that she tried out for the Brock dance team but she found her virtual experience to be quite different from what she imagined. She said that tryouts were run virtually where they posted two combos on YouTube and then they gave them a week to learn and submit them. She was also given a list of technical elements that they had to show off.
Bettencourt said that a challenge with running the tryouts virtually is that not everyone has access to the space needed to practice and demonstrate their skills. She said that “Not everyone has room in their basement, backyard, or might not have a dance studio to go to, so there could be a really talented dancer who was not able to show their skills due to the limited space.” These are important factors to consider when modifying an activity but it is hard to do when we are limited to social gatherings.
In the interview, Smith and Amy Rustico, a first-year in Medical Science, said that they wish they could have participated in intramural sports this year. Sadly this was not possible for them considering that they are not living on residence and all intramural sports are cancelled. There are also many other talented athletes who attend Brock but can not participate in their sports because of COVID-19. Personally, for me (Emily Meyer), I was planning on joining the varsity swim team but this was not possible as I am currently living at home. The swim team would have been a great way for me to meet other students and still be able to exercise. Although it is unfortunate that everything is virtual, it is best for our safety and we should remember that this can increase the chance of a shift back to normal.
The past few months have been difficult for a variety of reasons, but they all share a common reason: the coronavirus pandemic. The world has shifted to online functionality, leaving large buildings that were once bustling with people, now vacant, to reduce human interaction in the effort to eliminate the spread of COVID-19. Though some “alone time” can seem like a blessing at times, as human beings, we crave interaction. Especially as students, we want to communicate face-to-face, in-person, to meet new people and engage in experiences that reflect a healthy balance between our studies and social life. Though the shift to online is a reliable alternative for now, we can’t do this forever. With that in mind, stay safe, and we’ll all get through this together!
From the hundreds of responses received from first-year Brock students for our survey, here are the results. Thank you to everyone who completed the survey.