Photo: Dasser Kamran
Photo: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Students from summer sessions reflect on their virtual semester.

It took less than six months, but COVID-19 has changed and revolutionized education as we know it. With university students all over Canada preparing to start their first fully virtual semester, Canadians are tentatively watching to see the results of this forced switch in education methods. 

Although a small fraction of in-person sessions will be offered, a large selection of Canadian universities — including the University of Ottawa —  will host the majority of their classes online.

After a first completely virtual semester in the summer, it’s important to reflect on the varying degrees of success of the U of O in preparation for this new, unique fall semester.

Initial Speed Bumps

Thrusted into a sudden change over a couple days in March, students and faculty alike were unable to adjust to the drastic shift to online courses towards the end of the winter semester. 

Some didn’t have the proper technology and support, while others found it difficult to focus, especially in home settings. Others who had taken online courses in the past still thought the adjustment to an online-only environment was hard to make. 

“I’m used to taking maybe one course online at a time, so it was really weird having to balance multiple online courses,” said Phoenix Holt, a second-year psychology student.

“I’m used to being in school for a lot of my lectures, so you really have to motivate yourself to do these courses. A lot of it was just me getting it over with, like my essays and exams.”

Like students, professors had to quickly adjust themselves and adapt the way they teach classes. When it came to online instruction, students and professors had to work together to avoid any added confusion. 

Erica Branco, a third-year social science student details the confusion she faced due to the different methods her professors used.

“At first, it was a little difficult because all of my professors were doing different things. Some are doing voice overs with slides and some weren’t even posting slides for weeks on end, so I didn’t even get to cover all of the material in some classes before the final exam.”

Points for Presentations

Each professor has a different method of teaching content ranging from pre-recorded lectures to virtual live lectures where professors taught via web conferences or a hybrid of different mediums.

In an anonymous survey conducted by The Fulcrum, a majority of respondents preferred video conference lectures, using software like Zoom, Adobe Connect, or Microsoft Teams. The second-most preferred method was presentation slides without commentary. Some students also enjoyed studying via pre-recorded lectures, which offered extra flexibility.

“I liked the chat box feature, I could ask a question and other students could answer. It was hard to explain over text what exactly confused me to the professors,” one survey respondent commented.

“I liked that the lectures were recorded so you could go back and listen to the information again,” another respondent said. “I disliked that Adobe Connect would crash (happened a couple times) and the professor would have to cancel class.” 

“I like that a lot of my profs recorded the lectures and then posted them afterwards so that I’m able to go back and relook over my notes, and if I missed something in the lecture I can always go back to it,” said Sam Sheldrick, a second-year biopharmaceutical sciences student.

Alongside the modifications, students like Desmond Staples acknowledge the stark difference between professors teaching in recorded lectures from previous in-person lectures.

“I did find that in class when my professor’s speaking, it would be more like a conversational tone. It was more like he could kind of gauge how the class was responding to the information, and if there were questions or how fast they were reading or writing things down,” he said. 

“But I found that online since he didn’t have that sort of instant feedback, you’d go a lot faster and just, you know, he’s recording himself, so it was just a lot faster paced in class which I did not find, was very helpful for me.”

What Professors Need to Do

Many students are suggesting that professors be more accommodating when it comes to participation as students can have additional responsibilities such as part-time jobs or taking care of relatives when studying from home.

“Just being understanding that we also may have a lot going on for those who aren’t on campus [in Ottawa] because I’m going to be working while I’m home,” Branco explained.

“I would be spending more time studying but now that I’m home I have other commitments, as well. I’m gonna have to learn to balance these commitments with schoolwork, so I just think professors need to understand that life might be a little more difficult for some people than it would be for others.”

Fourth-year international development and globalization student Andrea Raymond said professors also need to be more flexible with students in rural regions. 

“I know there are areas where the internet either drops all the time or they don’t have it. And so they might be having to go somewhere like a library or the next town over to have access to the internet,” said Raymond. 

“I think they need to keep in mind that not everyone has the same setup, some people will live with multiple people in the house and they don’t have a quiet area, especially when it comes to exams and Respondus.”

Other survey respondents discussed their long hours spent on class work every week as a downside. 

“I’m seeing that many professors are having three hours of lecture posted a week and then a three hour ‘in class’ session to answer questions and solve problems, one student said “This increases the length of classes to six hours for one class this wouldn’t normally happen in person. Hoping this changes as it would be overwhelming if all five of my classes were running at six hours a week.”

It’s also crucial to remember that not all students can remain seated or focused for long periods of time and to be considerate for those with physical or mental disabilities.

“Please remember that your students are human and have mental health to deal with, as well as other commitments,” one survey respondent commented. “It is incredibly hard as is with COVID-19, without making the course harder. We understand you’re concerned about cheating but it’s not worth the amount of breakdowns students will be having because of the increased difficulty.”

When it comes to student success, regular communication and virtual office hours are a frequent suggestion.

“I feel like the professors who held office hours or a kind of weekly discussion… were super helpful,” said second-year criminology student Kate Brown.

“I feel like that’s good because then during a live lecture, I always wasn’t super comfortable asking a question in front of everyone. So that way, I’d be more comfortable and I could still get the clarification I needed.”

Matt Kord, a second-year mechanical engineering student, explained having weekly group assignments kept him engaged in his course.

“It was a lot of fun because I worked with my friends and I was actually learning stuff because I had to do the assignment,” he said. 

“Generally I think engagement is the biggest thing; you have to find some way of engaging with students and like keeping them engaged, so that they actually learn because if you’re just talking, and you’re not doing anything, then they won’t pay attention.”

Learned as much online?

When it comes to comparing online learning to in-person learning, students gave mixed answers.

Kord said he didn’t learn as much online as he did in-person, largely due to the differences in motivation.

“I think you can definitely learn just as much online, I feel like I know I could, but it definitely takes more self-discipline and I definitely know that that’s a very difficult thing for a lot of people,” he said.

One anonymous responded to the survey believes that professors need to reapproach their teaching methods due to the shift to online courses.

“Some professors have been really bad at knowing how to evaluate students because they expect the way that people learn is to just absorb information and then regurgitate it on a piece of paper,” they said. “I want professors to get better at asking students, how they learned and what they learned from something, and the way that we convey what we understood.”

According to survey results, there were varied answers between “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe”. For those who answered no, answers varied from disliking open book exams to struggling with distractions.

“The content that was thrown at us in a way that was hard to process,” another respondent said. “The professors should have taken the time to help us with self-learning.”