Two weeks into Zoom university, students reflect on digital learning

Instructors have taken a wide array of approaches adapting their courses to a virtual format

Six students open up about their transition from in-person to remote learning
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Jessica Dahanayake, Eng ’20, has always taken a mix of online and in-person courses. For her, there was an important difference between choosing to take an online course and having to take part in a completely virtual semester.

“Usually when I took an online course, it was something I was passionate about,” she said. “I was self-driven. When I’m forced to take an online course, it sometimes doesn’t even feel like a real course.”

On May 12, internal emails revealed Queen’s was preparing for a remote Fall 2020 term, with some exceptions. The news came following months of uncertainty for students.

READ MORE: Internal email shows Queen’s preliminary plans for fall term course delivery

The initial suspension of in-person activities on March 13 saw instructors make abrupt and unplanned transitions to online learning. But with the summer to prepare courses for remote learning, this semester looks very different.

It’s become clear remote learning could continue long-term and, for the first time, the majority of students are experiencing a full course load in self-isolation for an entire semester. Both students and faculty have had more time and experience with remote learning, though experiences with it still vary. 

Reid Moffat, CompSci ’23, had a negative experience with an online course before coming to Queen’s and tried to avoid online learning from then on.

“I took one course in high school. I originally expected it to be on par to what I’d get in-person, but I noticed it wasn’t even close to that level […] it can only cater to a couple different learning styles.”

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Naturally, expectations are higher for remote learning now than in March, which gave professors a week to prepare for an entirely online end to the semester. The University chose to not lower tuition fees for the 2020-21 academic year, pointing to the fact that online courses have always been subject to the same fee structure as regular courses, and said online course offerings would be more advanced than in March. This followed student pressure to lower fees for the 2020-21 year.

READ MORE: Queen’s plans to maintain tuition fees for remote learning, anticipating loss of international tuition

Liam Gavaghan, ArtSci ’22, was sceptical about whether online learning could match the quality of education offered in-person.

“The key aspect that changes for the student is that the individual is held to a higher personal standard to complete their work, however the quality of the information and lectures given have generally degraded.”

Bruce Baker, ArtSci ’22, agreed.

“We were being told that everything was going to be the same level and quality of education, and that was the justification behind why tuition wouldn’t be decreased,” he said. “It’s disheartening as a self-funded student for that to be fundamentally untrue.”

Baker, like others interviewed, experienced issues with course selection, purchasing textbooks from the campus bookstore, and courses appearing late or not all on the first day of classes.

Moffat was confident that the quality of online courses, as compared to in-person, was “not even close to the same.”

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There’s no standard approach for adapting a course previously taught in-person to remote learning. As a result, student experiences are varying.

Most students have a mix of courses which are entirely asynchronous, consisting of pre-recorded videos, and synchronous courses, which include live lectures.

For Baker, asynchronous courses dominate his course load, with just one of his five courses incorporating synchronous lectures.

Where an asynchronous experience is offered, students can sometimes bear the responsibility of teaching themselves a course. Gavaghan experienced this in two cases.

“A pair of my classes straight up gave all the material out and told us to have it all done by December,” he said.

Meanwhile, one of Moffat’s courses offers weekly PDFs of lecture notes.

Dahanayake, like most of her peers, prefers live lectures.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to watch the class and stop the professor midway and say, ‘I didn’t understand this.’ You don’t get that when you’re doing it asynchronously.”

Jenny Hua, Comm ’22, has mostly synchronous classes, but still misses the social components absent in remote learning—especially when it comes to group work.

“I look at the class list, and I know absolutely no one. When classes were in-person I got the chance to meet my classmates face-to-face and form groups that way.”

Regardless of whether live lectures are involved, each student said online learning requires more intense self-discipline and time management skills.

“There is more flexibility in online learning,” Hua said. “But it also involves planning accordingly so you don’t miss any deadlines and allocate enough time to get everything done.”

Julie Cameron, MSc ’21, appreciated the opportunities this flexibility opens up.

“During in-person lectures, obviously I don’t choose the space that I am in and sometimes it’s easy to get distracted,” she said. “With online learning, I find it very comforting to be in my own space.”

Cameron added the free time she saves on commuting means she has more freedom to start volunteering remotely at organizations she wouldn’t have volunteered at before.

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The University announced on July 30 that most Winter 2021 first-year lectures will be delivered remotely, but plans for upper-year students remain uncertain. As instructors prepare for a variety of scenarios, students are hoping to have their feedback heard in case remote learning continues into next year.

Moffat said he wants to see a decrease in tuition if online courses continue to fall short of the quality of in-person education. He also wants the University to be transparent about winter semester plans as early as possible.

“Some of the information we got over the summer was frustrating,” he said. “We’d get long emails about COVID and I’d go through it and it would basically say nothing.”

Cameron mentioned issues of accessibility, which she’d like to see addressed by the University where possible.

“I’ve been fortunate in the sense that I own really great technology that allows me to learn online with no glitches, but this is not the case for every student.”

Gavaghan wants to see a more seamless interface for students.

“It’s hard to focus on what needs to be done when I have to jump from OnQ to check when my work’s due, to Zoom to ask a question, and then to Teams to submit an answer.”

Dahanayake pointed to Zoom fatigue—the exhaustion that comes from staring at screens for long periods of time—which both students and faculty should be aware of.

“Zoom fatigue is very real, staring at a video camera but being in the same room all day […] it’s tiring, mentally tiring. That’s something universities should really recognize.”

She also emphasized the importance of accounting for individual circumstances moving forward, such as housing situations.

“Some students are in Kingston with a lot of housemates,” she said. “Some may be at home with parents and super loud siblings. That’s the kind of feedback professors need to listen to and empathize with.”

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