Online Learning

Post-secondary education’s great pandemic experiment

By Brooks Decillia

University labs and classrooms became participants themselves in a massive natural experiment during the pandemic. COVID-19 remade university life, forcing students and professors to retreat from their cavernous lecture halls and beaker-filled laboratories to much smaller—and often makeshift—study and teaching spaces in their homes. The withdrawal was abrupt and deviated sharply from the in-person experiences that have marked higher learning since the origins of the university in medieval Europe.

My first warning of the upheaval at Mount Royal University (MRU), where I teach, came in the form of a speculative email on March 12, 2020, the day after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and the National Basketball Association suspended its season. The bureaucratic message warned faculty to get our heads around how we “might” teach remotely. As the contagion spread, my anxiety grew. Two days later—and in the same technical voice—the university’s president announced a “transition to alternative delivery.” There was nothing gradual about my change from lively, debate-filled classroom teaching to using sterile video communication apps from my basement office to deliver lectures to students with their microphones and cameras turned off. For professors and students alike, those first few days were like a dense storm. We could see only faint shadows ahead and had no idea what to expect in the wake of the lockdown.

What followed in the many months since has been a far-reaching experiment that dramatically altered how professors teach, how students learn (or don’t), exposed long-standing inequalities in post-secondary education and deepened financial uncertainty for the institutions.

Over half of Isaiah Haughton’s university experience has played out in the two-room apartment he shares with his brother. The pandemic forced the second-year MRU student to complete the last month and a half of his first year, and his entire second year, off-campus. “It was a big change for me,” he says. “It was shocking.”

It was bewildering for faculty too. Unlike my students—often nimble users of new technology—I wasn’t an adroit user of video-communication programs such as Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams. I wasn’t alone. “It wasn’t seamless by any means,” recalls D.A. Dirks, who teaches humanities and education at MRU. “I was recording myself, holding my camera in my face, doing my lectures. It was very low-tech.” Nearly three-quarters of faculty at MRU surveyed by the school in the fall of 2020 say they found it challenging to translate lessons or activities into a format that worked remotely.

The switch undermined professors’ efforts at teaching and stole time away from learning. Glitches and sometimes comical technology failures sparked banter amongst students using private messaging. Teachers became the learners, with students—“digital natives”—patiently walking their professors through turning on microphones or sharing PowerPoint slides. For Haughton and other students, it was frustrating.

Students—digital natives—patiently walked their professors through turning on their microphones or sharing their slides with the class.

Distant, secluded, isolated, lonely. The disconnected existence of remote learning became a bleak reality, rolling into the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021 as the pandemic lingered and classes remained almost completely online. Haughton desperately missed contact with students and professors. “I need to be in a classroom. I need to be around other students. I need to go to the library to study,” says the 24-year-old. “I’m a social learner. I need to talk to people… It feels a little awkward on Zoom.”

More than 8 in 10 students surveyed at MRU said learning remotely has proven harder than in the traditional classroom. Fewer than a third rated their online learning experience in the fall of 2020 as excellent or good.

Arts student Lauren Jacobson loathes remote learning. “I hate it. I hate it so much. I find it so difficult,” says the 22-year-old, who is enrolled at Alberta University of the Arts. Jacobson took fewer classes during the pandemic, holding off studying sculpture or other classes where students make physical art. “I just don’t feel it’s worth it to be taking more,” Jacobson says. In the pandemic’s early days, concern about viral spread prompted AUArts to shut down its wood and metal shops. Instead of creating art, Jacobson was limited to writing about it or sketching it.

On top of that, art was compressed from three dimensions to two through the medium of video classes. “You couldn’t interact with people’s artworks in a physical space,” says Jacobson. “It was always mediated through a screen, and that makes it very difficult. We don’t really have… productive critiques.”

Third-year University of Calgary neuroscience student Chaten Jessel dreams of pursuing research or heading to medical school after he finishes his bachelor’s degree. In year three of his four-year undergraduate degree he was supposed to learn how to do basic neuro-electrophysiology, which involves techniques to measure electrical signals in the brain. But his professor shifted the class’s focus from technique to computational neuroscience. Now, says the 21-year-old, “I don’t have those skills… and there’s not going to be a chance for me to gain those skills.” He’ll have to pick them up later, when labs resume on campus—or try to learn them on the job.

Experiential lab work teaches students to observe, practise and experiment. It’s essential hands-on training, allowing them to relate theory taught in lectures to what they actually see in a lab. Social distancing restrictions forced labs to change more than probably any other type of learning. At some universities, labs became much smaller and were reserved only for upper-level courses. Other universities moved labs online and turned them into simulation-based versions, using software to create immersive virtual learning environments so students could “recreate” real-life scientific experiments from home.

The heavy lifting of transforming science labs fell to instructors such as Ana Colina. With little notice, the microbiology instructor at MRU turned a usually hands-on exercise—showing students how to culture bacteria in petri dishes—into a video. She also showed photos of the microbial organisms reproducing and multiplying in laboratory conditions. Students were then tasked with assessing the morphology or structure of the bacteria. “Obviously aspects cannot be replicated,” says Colina. “We just have to accept that.”

Teaching engineering students how to apply science became a lot less practical over Zoom. “I haven’t been a fan of online learning,” says Kylie Berkshire, a student at the U of C’s Schulich School of Engineering. The 21-year-old missed hands-on creative design and exploration work; Berkshire’s labs became a blend of computer simulations or videos of instructors performing tasks. For example, instead of actually building a physical radio that could receive electromagnetic waves as a final project in one of her labs, Berkshire had to make do with simulating a circuit diagram—putting the resistors and capacitors in the right spots—with software. She describes this as a disappointing “copy and paste thing from the lab manual” exercise. Before the pandemic, Berkshire says she was really engaged. She could visualize the exercises and took a leadership role during in-person labs. But doing the work online made it hard to focus: “I felt like I couldn’t contribute as much as I normally could.”

A nationwide survey conducted by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations in May 2020 found that nearly two-thirds of post-secondary students didn’t find their remote experience equivalent to in-class learning. Nearly 6 in 10 didn’t think remote courses offered the same support—time with professors, tutorials etc.

Isaiah Haughton found online lectures monotonous, admitting he often drifted off. “I’m pretty much sleeping through these classes,” says the MRU student. “It’s not effective for me.” It wasn’t great for professors either. Lecturing to a blank screen upended the interpersonal interactions that usually come in classrooms. Decades of journalism and teaching have made me pretty adept at reading a room. But I found muted mics and turned-off cameras impenetrable. The usual organic cues that confirmed learning or confusion were gone. It was discouraging not knowing if my lectures were “landing.”

The pandemic also required patience, as everyone’s time got sucked up doing things that had previously been effortless. Opportunities to fire off quick questions about assignment deadlines at professors’ offices or as instructors were leaving lecture theatres changed too. Suddenly “you needed to send an email or schedule a time to meet,” says Laura Conrad, a political science master’s student at the U of C, adding it took time to hear back. And it was a lot more work for professors. My inbox, particularly in the fall of 2020, overflowed with mundane questions about readings, assignments and due dates. This sort of administrivia, as I like to call it, are things I remind students about at the beginning or end of lectures. All the information is also posted online. But for some reason students weren’t hearing or seeing it, so they emailed, and they emailed a lot.

There were other problems, including Zoom fatigue and spotty internet. Conrad, who was supposed to move from her hometown of Winnipeg to Calgary in the fall of 2020 to pursue her master’s, instead opted to stay home, where her Zoom seminars competed for broadband with three other people in her house also voraciously consuming bandwidth. A poor internet connection added a barrier for many students, especially those who went home to rural parts of the country. “Wifi is definitely annoying,” says Conrad.

 As COVID-19 took hold, the catchphrase “we’re all in this together” permeated political discourse and floated around social media. But the pandemic was not a great equalizer. It exposed and exacerbated a multitude of inequalities—class, race, financial, gender, LGBTQ+—that were already pronounced at Canadian universities. As institutions and dormitories closed, not every student went home to mum and dad’s house, where there was plenty of good food in the fridge and high-speed broadband to stream classes from their familiar bedroom. Some went home to full houses, others back to volatile domestic situations. Still more continued living in apartments filled with roommates. More than 4 in 10 students at MRU reported that they struggled to find an appropriate place to study.

As universities moved to remote learning, many administrators and faculty blithely assumed students had access to technology and reliable internet. Compounding this, the support services that many disadvantaged students rely on were no longer accessible on campus. Sure, some of the services migrated online, but not all were the same.

Universities, for the most part, are designed to help students on campus, says George Veletsianos, a professor at Royal Roads University. “Most institutions were not set up to serve distance students,” says the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology.

MRU psychology student Tyler Redgun knows this first-hand. He misses the support system on campus. “There were a lot of moments where I felt like I had to teach myself,” he says. The 24-year-old Siksika Nation student was unable to visit MRU’s Iniskim Centre, which serves Indigenous students and was “a big help,” says Redgun. He had role models at the centre and received “good advice” about navigating university.

The pandemic also created more financial uncertainty for students. Alberta’s United Conservative Party government has slashed spending to the province’s post-secondary institutions by $400-million since coming to power in 2019. The pandemic compounded matters, as revenues that would normally have come from international students’ tuitions and from cafeterias, parking and merchandise sales evaporated. Tuition hikes have further angered already stressed students. Many continued to pay their tuition by working on the so-called pandemic front lines, staffing grocery or pharmacy checkouts—if they kept their jobs at all.

Survey research conducted for TD Bank in the summer of 2020 revealed that young people, especially Black, Indigenous and people of colour, felt the financial impact of the pandemic hardest. That group was among the most likely to lose their job or have their hours cut because of COVID-19. The growing financial burden and diminished learning and social experience made many question whether it was all worth the cost. Haughton wonders if he could have made far better use of his time: “I might as well have just taken a gap year.”

According to a survey conducted by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, 7 in 10 students across Canada reported feeling stressed, anxious and isolated due to the pandemic. A sense of despair increased, with 82 per cent of Canadian students saying they worried about their future. Nearly every student at MRU, according to the university’s own research, said their mental health deteriorated because of fallout from COVID-19. Three-quarters of MRU students described being mentally or emotionally exhausted and having troubles concentrating because of the pandemic.

“Oh man, it’s lonely,” says Jessel, who studied remotely during the pandemic from his bedroom in Chestermere, just outside Calgary. Describing a Groundhog Day-like existence, Jessel relays the perpetual monotony of his post-secondary pandemic experience. Every day, he woke up, showered and then sat at his desk for about 14 hours. “I go to sleep, and then I wake up and do it again,” says the neuroscience student. “The biggest downside has been that loneliness factor where, you know, it’s just you alone in a room for how long?” A full academic year, it turns out.

Counselling at the U of C and MRU eventually adapted to online delivery to meet the growing need for mental health services. It was a bit clunky at first, says Michael Huston, a registered psychologist and a counsellor at MRU. “We thought there’s no way we could provide the same type of support,” he says. But it turns out counsellors were actually able to reach more students by moving online. “It’s just more accessible, and the counselling—the one-on-one [virtual] counselling—is equal, I think,” to pre-pandemic in-person therapy, he says.

Heightened concerns about mental health also created greater empathy. Curmudgeonly professors once rigid about deadlines and word counts were much less strict during the pandemic. Jessel says many of his professors bent over backwards with extensions and other offers of help to make sure students got through their courses. He says he confronted students who complained about “hopeless” professors who couldn’t get Zoom to work. “This is a hard time for everybody… everybody’s going through the same thing,” he remembers telling them.

Eight in 10 students at MRU felt professors remained positive and caring during the pandemic. D.A. Dirks was open with students about their own mental health struggles. The history and general education professor called it a “two-way street.” “I always say to students: ‘I’m a human, I’m not a robot. There are things going on in my life too… We should be kind to each other.’”

Many of the practices that began as improvisation at the start of the pandemic may become lasting features in post-secondary education. Some students enjoyed the flexibility of listening to recorded lectures. They could learn when they wanted. Pre-recorded teaching “does provide maximum flexibility for students,” says Dirks. “They can pace themselves… they don’t have to be sitting in front of a computer at a specific time listening to a lecture or meeting with professors and classmates in a synchronous format.”

For Jessel, the recordings helped him review and answer questions about material he didn’t understand at first. The pandemic also required different ways of evaluating students. Writing final exams in huge gyms wasn’t an option. Master’s student Conrad says she noticed less of a focus on memorization and more emphasis on applying theory and concepts. Exams became a blend of open- and closed-book tests administered through learning management systems such as Blackboard or D2L.

 “Some professors did great and switched over to application-based questions,” Jessel says, “but others seemed to use ‘open book’ as an excuse to make their exams ludicrously difficult.” This understandably created a lot of anxiety. “It also went against a lot of the test-taking strategies we learn as students,” he says. “We couldn’t double-check our work or skip more-difficult questions and come back to them later.”

 Remote learning, however, did allow some students to flourish, says microbiology instructor Colina. Some senior students impressed her with their grasp of her course’s online material. “They are always participating. They all have great ideas.” And Colina says she’s become more reflective about her own teaching. She spent a lot of time thinking about how students learn and the best ways to present her course material in manageable chunks. “I’m thinking about students going through the cycle when they are learning the subject… And that’s helping me better tailor my teaching style and tools.”

What Colina and professors like her did is improvise. And in making their courses teachable from a distance, they were following an example set by Athabasca University—based in Alberta—which primarily offers online distance learning, with its courses specifically designed to be online. In many ways, AU was pandemic-proof.

AU deputy provost Anne-Marie Scott jokes there wasn’t much fuss or muss at her institution when the pandemic forced traditional universities to close their classrooms and labs. “We are the post-secondary who changed least in the last year,” says Scott with a chuckle. AU courses typically come with their own website, constructed and tailored to help students learn independently. The university offers personalized one-to-one tutoring and telephone and email access to instructors. “We’re designing for digital and we’re designing for maximum flexibility,” says Scott. For example, AU provides students with electronic versions of textbooks or even mails textbooks and lab supplies, including boxes of rock samples for geology courses.

The perpetual monotony of a Groundhog Day existence: wake up, shower, sit at a desk for 14 hours, go to sleep, wake up and do it again.

“People have been coming to the realization that there’s much more to online learning than putting your lectures online or your PowerPoints online,” says George Veletsianos, who has been designing, developing and evaluating digital learning environments for nearly 20 years. Good online learning, he adds, is more than just shovelling onto the internet the usual classroom content taught in-person, and letting students do the work themselves. That’s what often happened in response to the pandemic.

Alberta’s traditional universities might learn something from AU. Scott is a big fan of offering multiple learning formats. She came to Alberta from Edinburgh University, which offers students a mix of both. “Online reduces barriers,” she says. “It recognizes that lots of different people learn in different ways.”

But Alberta’s wholesale transition to remote learning necessitated by the pandemic was done on a “shoestring budget” and the “backs” and “goodwill” of faculty, says Lee Easton, who teaches English at MRU and heads the Mount Royal Faculty Association. A lot of that hard work fell to contract faculty or sessionals, who had little choice but do the extra work or don’t get paid.

“It leaves you feeling exploited,” says Dirks. “You do the work because you like teaching and you like students and you like that interaction with students, and that’s all been removed… So, you’re in this situation where the reason you like teaching has been removed, and now you’re doing this extra work for no pay. It’s not great.”                 

Post-secondary administrators are talking about blending what universities did before the pandemic with some of the online technology used during the COVID-19 experiment. But that’s going to require intentionally designing a mix of both in-person and online courses. University professors retooled their classes because the pandemic forced them to. They did the best they could with limited resources and on the understanding that traditional teaching would eventually return.

“Online learning,” says Veletsianos, “is a powerful model that can work for some people, sometimes, in some situations.” But for many of us at Alberta’s universities, traditional in-person learning can’t return soon enough. 

 Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years at CBC. He teaches communication theory at MRU and studies public opinion at the U of C.

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