Mississauga and Brampton post-secondary students reflect on almost two school years “lost” to COVID

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Published June 29, 2021 at 3:16 pm

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Empty and half-empty solo cups liter a cheap table in the middle of the room and music blares with a bass so loud you can feel it in your chest; thousands of people fill a crowded university stadium and cheer until their voices are hoarse, as their team attempts to vanquish their hated rival; several people hang out in a dorm common room, unaware or unconcerned that they’ve talked into the early hours of the morning, as they discuss their favourite activities, TV shows, or hobbies.

For many of us, these are the memories that come to mind when we think of our time at university or college—the wild parties, the improbably sports victories, the club meetings that lasted all night because the conversations were so gripping.

While most people who attend post-secondary education ultimately leave with a degree, they also leave with so much more than that—many of them leave with the memories of some of the best days and nights of their young lives.

However, for many, the pandemic has put a halt to that.

For the last year-and-a-half, post-secondary institutions have pivoted to offering online learning in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

While the education being offered is more or less the same (depending on who you ask), the post-secondary experience is undoubtedly different.

“I definitely believe that online learning has diminished my university experience,” a third-year human behaviour student at McMaster University in Hamilton—who wished to be identified only as Sanjna, says. “As of now, I’ve spent more time in university online than in person which is unfortunate. I believe there’s so much more to university than just the course work.”

Sanjna says one of the things she enjoyed most about university was the constant slate of activities being offered.

“The thing that I loved the most about university is that there is always something happening. There are opportunities to meet new people and to have fun. Sure, the academic part was hard work, but it was also a blast,” she says.

“During the pandemic, for me, university has consisted of just work. In terms of academics, I think online learning also affects learning. There aren’t many opportunities to engage with peers through online learning naturally. Some professors have breakout rooms on Zoom, although from my experience, it’s very forced and rarely effective,” she adds.

Other students say that while it’s not impossible to learn, it’s harder to connect with others. 

“I feel that online learning preserves the core elements of learning. It’s just meeting people online is harder as you don’t ‘bump’ into people the way you would on campus. It’s less immersive—a 3D experience is now 2D,” a third-year computer science student at the University of Toronto–Mississauga (UTM), who wished to be identified only as Rashid, says.

Delaney Small, a first-year technical production student at Sheridan College–which operates campuses in Mississauga, Oakville and Brampton–feels this way as well.

“I feel like studying online diminished my university experience. It is extremely difficult to connect and make friends when you study online, especially because most students turn off their cameras while taking classes,” Small says.

“The good thing was that I was able to stay in residence, which was a good way for me to make friends, even with all the restrictions in place. I think it is also difficult to connect with professors because explaining a lesson online isn’t the same as being in person,” she adds.

A lack of being able to connect with professors has been a common experience for many post-secondary students during the pandemic.

“Many of my professors have not accommodated enough or at all during the pandemic,” Sanjna says.

“There are many students who are greatly affected by the pandemic whether that be on their health, financial situation or family situation and I think professors should strive to be more empathetic and accommodating. One attempt many professors had to prevent cheating is having a proctoring system during tests and exams. I absolutely hated proctoring systems and I found they increase my anxiety during the test-taking process. Many students have also brought up privacy concerns for many of the proctoring softwares, which I agree with.”

Nazrin Alaskarov, a fourth-year illustration student at Sheridan College, echoes these sentiments. “Some of my professors did not consider their students’ needs as much as they did their own convenience,” Alaskarov says.

However, this has not been the case for all students.

“I would definitely say that my professors have been accommodating. We have never experienced anything like this before. They have been really understanding whenever students ask for extensions or miss tests due to varying reasons. My personal experience would be when I was sick from contracting the virus, my professors were really understanding by giving me the time to recover and placing an extension on assignments that I had missed due to my time being sick,” Tatiana Harvey, a fourth-year student specializing in comparative physiology at Sheridan College, says.

“I believe professors have been accommodating. Some professors had grace periods put in place for assignment submissions in order to accommodate for possible technical issues,” a third-year psychology student at McMaster, who wishes to remain anonymous, says.

“Also, most professors record their lectures which is helpful for when I have to miss a lecture (on the rare occasion), or when I missed some important information,” they continue.

Additionally, while many students have felt like certain aspects of their post-secondary experience have been lacking, there have also been adjustments they appreciate.

“I found that I’ve been able to save money on extra expenses like rent (I live with my family now), travel and food. I’ve also been able to save time and get more work done from home and take advantage of more online opportunities,” Alaskarov says.

“Because I don’t have to commute to class anymore, I can sleep longer, and I feel more energized as a result,” Rashid says. “Getting to enjoy homecooked meals made by my mom also makes me feel better.”

Further, while the experience has been difficult for students, it has also presented challenges for the institutions themselves.

“When this first started, we expected it would be just for a few months, and now we’re at more than 16 months,” Maria Lucido Bezely, the Dean of Students at Sheridan College, says. “I’ve thought of other crises we’ve had that have been really challenging, such as a faculty strike or staff strike, and how we navigated through those moments to best support our students—but this was something that we’ve never experienced before.”

Bezely stressed the time crunch most institutions were under—many were forced to completely overhaul the way their programs and courses were offered in just two weeks.

“We had to help our faculty, and our staff, and our students adjust to this change, and that required complete adaptation of the curriculum,” she says.

“For example, when colleges or universities create a new program or make significant changes to an existing program, there’s a significant process of due diligence and rigor that goes into mapping that out—it could take up to two years to get all the necessary approvals.”

Bezely also acknowledged the fact that many students were missing the social aspect of the post-secondary experience, and she says it was a priority for Sheridan to come up with some sort of solution for this.

“There’s also a huge social element to life on campus, and, with the move to online, students missed that a lot, and many of them felt really isolated, so we were trying to figure out a way we could build a sense of community virtually,” she says.

With the Province gradually easing restrictions, it’s conceivable a return to in-person learning could be on the table for the fall—something many students are excited about.

“If given the choice, I would definitely choose to return to in-person learning. For me, I’ve spent more than enough time at home doing online learning and would definitely take the chance to return to campus,” Sanjna says.

“I prefer in person education. I love in-person learning, especially in a creative environment where I can get to know my peers and instructors better and where I can be inspired by others’ work and build connections. I do think these things are achievable online but they are a lot more challenging when you’re not interacting with people face to face,” Alaskarov adds.

However, not everyone feels this way.

“I would prefer to continue studying online—I prefer the extra time, homemade food, and flexibility over the benefits of in-person learning,” Rashid says.

“I feel as if I am caught in the middle. It was such a difficult adjustment to make but now I have become quite comfortable with online learning. I miss the in-person interactions. However, I do believe most of my peers would share these sentiments. We have finally adjusted to this model of learning. It will be a difficult transition to make when returning to in-person classes,” Harvey adds.

Moreover, some believe a hybrid model provides the best of both worlds.

“I really enjoyed being hybrid this past year. When I was in-person I found that it was easier and definitely very fun when you are around everyone at school. I would like to return fully in person for most classes. For classes where you learn computer software, I would like those to stay online. I really like how I can go at my own pace during those classes and if I don’t finish the in-class work I can continue with the work later in the day or week,” Small says.

Bezely believes Sheridan will offer students the ability to choose whether they take courses online or in-person moving forward, which will allow students to choose the option that best suits them, and improve their academics and social lives.

“Everything that we’ve provided in the past for students in-person, we’re now able to provide that virtually as well,” she says.

“Out of urgency and necessity, we were forced to get creative and innovative—as a result of this negative situation, we’ve built virtual platforms for learning that I believe will increase the flexibility students are looking for when it comes to how they access their education,” she says. “I think this whole ordeal has allowed us to think differently about how students might be able to complete their courses and their programs in a way that’s more convenient for them and fits their schedule better.”

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