Adam Wloka, a second-year marketing student at Concordia University, has struggled to communicate with his professors ever since university learning transitioned online last spring.
“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t ask my professors anything at all,” he told The Pigeon in an interview. “Asking questions [over] emails has become a pain.”
Wloka isn’t alone. The Pigeon spoke with students and faculty members at universities across Canada, and subjects overwhelmingly expressed their dissatisfaction with online learning models.
Last spring, a StatCan survey of 100,000 postsecondary students found that 75 per cent saw all of their courses move online due to COVID-19. The survey also showed that moving to remote classes caused students to lose access to class materials and technology, as well as quiet and safe spaces to work at home. Seven per cent of these students were “unable to complete some or all” of their online courses.
One year later, challenges with online learning persist. This new format has created communication barriers between students and their professors, and continues to inhibit learning and teaching. Students and faculty are also still experiencing “Zoom fatigue,” headaches, and strain caused by online technology.
In the hopes of avoiding these technological barriers, some professors have moved to recording lectures ahead of time. However, not all students find these effective.
“I think that pre-recorded lectures are the worst part about online school,” Wloka said. “Why watch [professors’] videos if I could go on YouTube or watch Khan Academy?”
“Why pay all this money to watch a video of my professor going through PowerPoint slides?”
One major problem stopping students from communicating with their professors is a lack of ability to ask questions during class time. Unlike in-person classrooms, where students can speak up to make comments and ask questions, open communication isn’t always possible through online learning.
Paige Percy, a Master of Environmental Policy candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland, told The Pigeon in a Zoom interview that online learning made it hard for her to communicate with professors because it lacks physical and emotional cues.
“It’s definitely hard to communicate with professors you’ve never met in person,” Percy said. “You can’t see their mannerisms or get to know their tone or personality. When you can’t pick up certain cues from a professor, it becomes hard to communicate with them about project ideas and general concepts.”
Zoom and other video chat services offer a “raise a hand” feature to signal questions. Some professors have even included question periods to make communication easier, but others have made no effort to make communication easier for students. Those interviewed for this piece also noted some professors choose to keep their students muted, and even disable the chat feature.
Percy added a lack of one-on-one time with her professors has made it difficult to know when and how to reach out.
“Often, discussions are done over email rather than face-to-face because that seems easier than interrupting the [Zoom] classroom,” Percy said. “But that leads to conversations with either way too much or too little detail, frustrating both students and professors.”
Students have also mentioned that without in-person communication, they’re less motivated and more disconnected from the classroom. Izzy Fadel, a second-year student at Langara College, explained that developing relationships with professors is much harder over video chat.
“As someone who always participates in class, I never really had a hard time talking with my professors and trying to build a relationship with them,” she said. “It’s a lot harder now because being on a call with them is somehow a lot less encouraging so I feel like I can’t really participate.”
“The best I can do is send them an email and hope they remember me.”
Students studying overseas face all the issues their Canada-based peers do—but with added difficulties. Many international students live in different time zones, forcing them to either skip live classes or completely reverse their schedules to attend video calls.
In 2019, 642,000 international students travelled to Canada for their studies. This number has dropped by 22 per cent since the pandemic began, meaning more students than ever are getting their degrees online from other countries, while others are simply choosing not to enroll in classes for the foreseeable future.
Priyanshi Sharma, a fourth-year Psychology student at McGill University, is currently living at home in New Delhi, India. She told The Pigeon pre-recorded lectures allow her to work on school during the day, but added that some of her friends studying internationally stay up until the middle of the night to participate in mandatory lectures.
Registering for courses, though, was more difficult because of the time change.
“I wasn’t able to get into the classes I wanted, as seats would only become available late at night,” she said.
Despite not having to sacrifice any sleep for school, Sharma said online learning has been physically taxing.
“I hate spending hours on my laptop,” she said. “I get headaches, and my lower back has started to hurt so much.”
“Online learning has affected my physical health more than anything.”
Another barrier to effective learning is the price of technology needed for online learning. Students who don’t have access to certain devices or who don’t have stable enough internet connection can’t have the same quality of education as their peers.
While 94 per cent of Canadians have home internet access, the remaining six per cent of Canadians report either struggling to afford it or simply living in a region where reliable internet service isn’t available.
Provincial and territorial governments have worked to distribute devices to students in need during the pandemic, but those living in rural and remote parts of the country continue to experience technological barriers.
Ciara Nardelli, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, told The Pigeon in an email the Ontario government has invested $50 million to support post-secondary institutions in improving the quality of virtual learning experiences.
“As Ontario develops new ways of teaching and learning, we are focused on improving virtual learning opportunities, driving strong outcomes, and building a more innovative and responsive postsecondary education system to fuel Ontario’s global competitiveness,” Nardelli said.
For Percy, until classes are back on campus, the best solution is having online classes resemble in-person learning as closely as possible.
“It becomes much easier for me to reach out to [professors] for help when they were also vulnerable with me,” she said. “Whether that was them telling us their family member was sick, or that they were struggling […] when they openly communicated with us about more than just class material, it became easier for me to communicate.”
While university faculty members are aware of the difficulties students are facing, they’ve also struggled to make those valuable connections. Sonya Fatah, an assistant professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and the Editor-in-Chief of J-Source, noted the difficulty of keeping each student engaged.
“While I have tried to keep all lines open for students to interact with me through emails, phone calls, texts and online platforms […] it can be difficult to genuinely service every student’s needs,” Fatah said. “Especially when needs go beyond coursework, which they inevitably do.”
In preparing for a year of online teaching, Fatah sent forms to her students to see which type of class format would best suit them. While the majority of her students opted for synchronous, real-time learning, Fatah believes a different method could have been more conducive to effective communication.
“I found that everyone was exhausted quicker than they would be in an in-person environment,” Fatah said. “If I were to do it again I would do more small group sessions […] In a classroom, small group sessions would allow me to ‘walk’ among groups and chat with them.”
Jagg Carr-Locke, an associate professor and the undergraduate internship coordinator for Ryerson University, explained to The Pigeon that it’s important that educators be patient with their students now more than ever.
“You have to understand you can’t go hammer and tong with the intensity that you might be able to get away with in a live setting,” Carr-Locke said. “Screen fatigue is such a real thing [that] when you put a pandemic on top of it, this is an incredible [combination] of difficult events.”
Carr-Locke explained it’s important to be imaginative when navigating the challenges of online learning.
“It’s really important that there are lots of visuals [and you] build in in breathing space and breaks,” she explained. “It forces faculty to be imaginative.”
Joel Westheimer, the University Research Chair in Democracy & Education at the University of Ottawa, told The Pigeon a lack of access to devices isn’t the only barrier students are facing.
“There’s the less obvious [barrier] of having a space to be online,” Westheimer said. “That didn’t used to be the case. Even if people were from radically different backgrounds, they’d all be in the same classroom. Now everyone’s in their own classroom and they’re not all equally suitable to learn in.”
While online learning has turned out better than a lot of people thought, he added it’s still missing a key element—non-structured, human connection.
“What we all miss the most are the conversations that happen before and after class and during breaks with students,” Westheimer said.
“You can try to imitate that in an online environment but it’s too artificial.”