A report card for a Pandemic University: How has the U of L dealt with the first semester of online learning?

This article was written by Liam Devitt

It’s the beginning of December. U of L students are finishing up their classes, studying for exams, and are excited for the sweet release of Winter Break. Ordinarily, University Hall would be abuzz with activity, but it’s empty as ever. 

Like so many other things in these ‘unprecedented times’ (which feels cliche to say this far into the pandemic), the university experience has been stripped of all physical contact and is now mediated by Zoom, the isolation of living alone, and the existential dread of a deadly virus. 

The Meliorist caught up with U of L students and faculty to see how they are managing as the first full semester of online learning comes to a close, and how they think the University is doing to help them out.

“This semester, I witnessed the students of the University burn out in ways I have never seen before,” said Katie DeLucia, Co-Coordinator of the Campus Women’s’ Centre and Women and Gender Studies undergraduate student. “Many of us mentally prepared for the challenges this semester thinking it would be a short-term measure: a sprint to the finish line and then a return to normalcy. This assumption was abruptly shattered by the announcement in September of the online plans for the Spring semester.”

This was a sentiment echoed by many students that we spoke to. The pandemic has broken down the barriers between home, work and school. Work/life balance has for many, become less of a balancing act and more of an impossibility. With this new reality and all of the other stressors that this pandemic has brought on, many students hoped that professors would ease up on the workload as a matter of compassion. However, many students told us that in some cases, professors increased their workload.

“I’ve found that with things being online, some of my professors have increased workloads in order to ensure that their classes aren’t “academic recesses” or to make up for in-class participation,” said Tiffany Higham, Kinesiology student. “Weekly forum posts, reading summaries, and/or lesson tasks don’t seem like a lot for one class, but when students have that for 3 or more classes, it becomes overwhelming. Especially when you’re doing everything (working, sleeping, relaxing) in one room and productivity and motivation are low.”

Another student, Mason Hoffos, majoring in Addictions Counselling, noted that for them, the quality of learning had dropped vastly. For one of their classes, they described the coursework as solely consisting of downloading PowerPoint presentations from Moodle and writing tests based on the material they contained. They said: “Tuition should have been discounted. It is, frankly, absolute garbage that it costs me as much to read a series of powerpoints that don’t even have citations as it does to listen to a lecture from a professor.”

However, this year tuition has gone up, with the Kenney government’s lifting of the tuition freeze and cuts to post-secondary education across the board. These cuts, says Dr. Caroline Hodes, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies, has made it difficult for the University and professors to give students the support they need. 

The “current climate of austerity” that Hodes describes means that instructors are often without teaching supports, like Teaching Assistants, that make teaching large courses a more manageable task. Without this, courses may be simplified in terms of both content and assessment, leading to what Hodes believes as a less valuable educational experience. 

Hodes also raised concerns about what this pandemic means for post-secondary education as a whole, despite what she believes to be the University’s best efforts: “COVID-19 might be the excuse that institutions need to make online courses the new normal across academic disciplines in post-secondary education […] Pre-recording lectures is twice the work, limits creativity and adaptation to student needs in the classroom, provides the opportunity for increased surveillance of faculty and limits student participation.” 

Kathleen Massey, Associate Vice-President for Student Affairs, did not respond to The Meliorist’s request for comment.

UPDATE: However, on the evening of December 4th, Massey’s office sent out an email blast to students, containing a list of resources on the University website, and announcing the short extension of Winter Break, with Spring classes resuming on January 9th. The list of resources appears to not include any supports that were not available to students pre-pandemic, aside from the break extension.

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