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Reflections on online learning
Sana Mohsin, Managing Editor
My last Saturday in Toronto was spent cramped in a dorm room with friends, listening to loud desi music and snacking on ketchup crisps, unsure really of the situation. Campus had just closed yesterday, the last out of all the universities in Toronto, and we were waiting, uncertain of what exactly we expected to happen. A laptop was open to the University of Toronto (U of T) Outlook homepage, so that no email announcing sudden changes would go un-missed.
We didn’t know that this would be the last time we would all physically be together for many, many months. We also didn’t know that in just another day, some of us would book tickets across the globe to get back home, frantically packing away our lives in Toronto in cardboard boxes. In hindsight, I was one of the lucky ones who found a flight to Lahore, Pakistan before they shut off international travel for good, and was able to quarantine at home at the nick of time, while some were forced to stay behind.
I arrived in my hometown amidst fear, distrust, and general confusion, stuck inside for many months to come. With the health of my family members and friends my top priority, and with mis-information about Covid-19 running rampant in Whatsapp forwards, finishing my third year of university was admittedly the least of my worries: probably why it passed by in such a daze. My winter semester professors were kind enough to go out of their way to accommodate us, so I didn’t get my first taste of online, distance-based learning until summer courses began.
It wasn’t fun, to put it mildly; when I half-hazardly finished the final exam near the end of August, my exhaustion completely shut me down, and I slept eleven straight hours. In May, I jumped at the chance of being able to complete a tough required course in the comfort of my home, but had underestimated just how tough the home environment would prove to be.
Before having to switch to online classes, I had never dwelled on the affect a campus environment has on an institution’s students. I’ve lived on campus my past few years at UofT, a building filled with students working hard in different corners, usually until the early hours of the night. It was convenient to form study groups, even with people who weren’t in the same program as you, convenient to visit a coffee-shop or make Tim Horton’s runs even when every person had a different, precise order.
At the heart of it, I guess what I’m saying is that I miss hanging out with my friends, I miss being able to study with my friends. At a fast-paced, sometimes unfairly demanding institution like UofT, it made things easier to be around people who understand what you are going through. You realize how much you appreciate the people who could offer useful advice and encouragement when an 11:59pm deadline looms over your head. Quarantine has heightened our awareness of the essentiality of community, especially as students who have requirements to meet, degrees to complete.
It’s reassuring to know that I wasn’t alone in my ordeal: the lack of motivation, the dramatic time-differences, the miscommunication online. Isha Khurram, a third-year Cognitive Science major, was forced to stay in Toronto away from her family in Saudi Arabia due to closures. Discussing her choice to take online classes, she says,
“It was useful completing 2.0 FCEs remotely, as my online courses kept me busy and distracted from the stress that the global pandemic brought. With no way to return to my family in Saudi Arabia, I decided that completing a summer semester would be productive. Gratefully, my family managed to fly to Toronto to be together during the coronavirus outbreak.”
However, she too experienced some hindrances in the process of remote-delivery:
“It wasn’t easy adjusting to a new Airbnb every month, as the WIFI connection often wasn’t stable, hindering my ability to participate in my Zoom classes. It was challenging finding a quiet place to study, especially when my family would attend their school and work-related Zoom meetings scheduled according to Arabian Standard Time.”
Maria Kotob, a Rotman Commerce student, agrees with this sentiment,
“Taking courses online felt like self-studying on an entirely new level. Although the idea of independence is expected during “normal” university courses, taking online university courses required a different amount of stamina. Communication and technology were put to the test, and I found myself counting on my fingers more often than not, just to double check if I have the correct time difference.”
I’ve chosen to continue doing Fall semester online for a myriad of reasons, but most of all because I don’t yet trust our administration to handle this unprecedented situation well enough. Many other students, international and domestic, feel the same, which is why this semester UofT’s classrooms will mostly be filled virtually. Although it’ll take some time to adjust to this new study environment, it’s important to adopt some habits to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible.
As obvious as it sounds, the most important thing is structure. If you’re like me and associate your house as an escape from the stress of lectures and assignments, the transition to online learning can prove to be tricky. I would suggest acting as if you were actually going to class: dress nicely, get some coffee or tea in your tumbler, sit at a desk, the whole works. In our unmatched time, online classes can prove to be a respite from the chaos of the world; as Khurram says, “Although the summer semester came with its drawbacks, it has helped bring me a sense of routine and normality in these incredibly uncertain times.”
Kotob also offers some tips from her own experience:
“I think finding places to study, places that can motivate you, is extremely crucial. Online learning sets up a very standard routine that can get repetitive, so I found that the key is to keep things interesting, even in the simplest of ways. Whether that be deciding to study outside in the sun or Zoom calling some friends to work on a problem set, it was finding little pockets of normalcy that made online learning easier.”
What does this semester hold for me? Classes starting at midnight, Zoom meetings, and a lot more text messages than usual. Despite all the complications, I’m thankful that university, online or otherwise, will provide some semblance of normalcy in this pandemic, especially when it’s hard to imagine what even the next month will look like.
So, keep calm and keep connected!