Will online learning make the grade?

Photo: Gabbie Douglas

As they prepare for online classes in the fall, Halifax university students wonder if they’ll get their money’s worth


lasses will resume in fall of 2020 at Dalhousie and King’s universities, but instead of walking to class, students will use an online platform called Brightspace.
Due to COVID-19 public health precautions, most classes won’t run on campus or in person. This has upended students’ lives, posing challenges as they navigate a university experience they hadn’t counted on. Learning online is an unknown experience for some and the challenges that come with it are different for every person.
Jasmyn Suelzle is going into her fifth year studying mechanical engineering at Dal. “I’ve never taken a university course online, so I have no idea how it’s going to go for me,” she says. “It’s a very hands-on program. A lot of it is learning by seeing and doing. We have a lot of lab-based courses and a lot of courses that would be in a machine shop or a wood shop, making things. With school being closed and all campus areas being closed we won’t have a way to experience that part of the semester. My quality of learning is going to change for sure.”
Suelzle is VP of the Engineering Society. She’s heard many students raising questions about what the fall semester will look like, so the society created a survey for students to express their concerns.
Questions included: do you expect to be able to travel to Halifax in the fall? Do you have any concerns about Internet connectivity? Do you have any issues regarding accommodations during the fall semester?
Suelzle gathered the information and presented it to the department head. Results show 20–25% of students say they would have issues coming to Halifax and getting accommodations. Many of the survey responses also indicate a concern amongst students for their quality of education, completion of projects, and affording tuition fees.
Many of these changes equate to a different university experience. Alexis Amero is a student at King’s entering her third year studying philosophy. “Why I chose to go to a university with in-person lectures and in-person classes is because of the experience,” she says. “So the choice to go to a school and participate in classes, and make connections—that’s what I’m paying for.”
With this loss, some students may choose not to return to school in the fall. But Amero wants to become a teacher and is on a timeline. “If that wasn’t a thing, I probably wouldn’t be returning to school in the fall,” she says. “I can’t engage with a computer screen. But I can engage with my professors and peers, and talking circles, and friend groups and study groups that you get out of struggling in classes.”
A loss in engagement and connections make many things in a student’s life that much more challenging. Victoria Thompson is currently in her third year at Dal studying sociology and sustainability. “I hadn’t ever taken an online class up until this spring,” says Thompson. “And originally I wasn’t thinking it would be so bad, because I didn’t realize there were so many differences.”
Thompson has ADHD and says the online resources don’t accommodate to the way she learns best. “Everyone has different learning styles,” Thompson says. “I… and many other students I know rely on a mixed media approach to learning. And putting everything online shrinks the bubble of possibilities of different learning materials.”
Without in-person discussions or other forms of engagement, students who rely on those resources are disadvantaged. “And if you don’t respond well to pre-recorded videos and readings then you’re kind of going to suffer,” she explains.

Jenni Hayman

Jenni Hayman is chair of teaching and learning at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont. and an expert on distance learning. “Not everyone has the digital literacy needed to learn well online,” she says. “It depends on their learning preferences, and how well they have been trained to learn online. If they’ve been taking face-to-face courses for all of their post-secondary education and they prefer that, it’s a big shock to go online.”
Online courses can be effective for the right students, but it takes investment and time to develop interesting activities and establish social relationships, says Hayman.
Jennifer Stamp is a professor at Dal in the psychology and neuroscience department. Seven years ago Stamp starting teaching online. “We decided we we’re going to make online versions of our first year courses,” she says. “There was a lab component to it, and we figured how are we going to do that? It turned out to be fairly easy to create activities. We used the simplest technology possible and put it together in a learning management system, and recorded power points and images.”
Over time they tweaked the course, with improvements ongoing. “This pandemic has really—even for somebody who’d been doing this for a while and developed online resources—changed the way that I think about online learning because I didn’t realize how many things we weren’t doing which we could have been doing until this hit,” Stamp says.
Online learning has been around for 20 years in Canada says Hayman, with changes as technology develops. In the end an effective course is based on how well developed the online plan for that course is and whether or not faculty members have had sufficient time to do so, says Hayman. “Typically it’s a one-year runway for developing an online course but it depends on the type of course being created.”
If it’s asynchronous—when the student and professor never meet— it’s going to take much longer and require deliberate social outreach. “I don’t know them, they don’t know me,” says Stamp. “Your personality has to come through. To make students want to show up online it can’t just be crappy team collaborator meetings.”
There are advantages to online learning. The flexibility eliminates commuting, which makes university inaccessible for some. But there are new accessibility challenges, such as “digital redlining.” That term refers to when students don’t have modern computers and broadband Internet. “If you’re going to study in the fall you’re going to need a computer, you’re going to need Internet, and that creates a lack of access for lots of students,” Hayman says. “And it’s creating disparities in terms of post-secondary education.”
Without campus space for learning and access to resources, students’ homes become their classrooms. “The absolutely biggest challenge for me is my living situation,” says Thompson.
She lives with her family. She tries to create her own space to work in but distractions abound. “If I finally get on a roll, and someone is calling out to me to do something or someone comes in or starts talking, or turns on the TV… I can’t tell them to stop,” she says.
Campus provides a space away from home that is crucial for some. “I have a couple of friends who live in households that they’re not safe in,” Amero says. “They’re queer, they live at that university. They literally slept at the library, that’s just the situation they’re in. I know myself and a lot of my peers are our own support system. And seeing each other and interacting with each other every day is what keeps us going.”
The constant human connection builds community and helps students navigate university’s challenges. “University is such a transitional time in everyone’s life,” says Amero. “And I know my political views are shifting. I can’t talk about politics in my house without losing my mind, but you can go to campus and have those conversations, have productive conversations and that’s where you learn things. But you can’t have that when you stay where you are. And that’s a big part of choice, to put yourself in a new mindset, to put yourself in a whole new place to learn because you’re becoming a new person. And you can’t do that the same way from home.”
What should students do?
“I really think that students need to advocate for themselves in this moment and decide whether or not online learning is for them,” says Hayman. “The realistic lens is that it’s going to be at least the fall semester, it could go into the winter semester, we could come back to class then have to go back to online teaching again if there’s another wave we have to worry about… If they don’t have access to computers and good Internet access, then they need to demand… access to that, because otherwise they’re at a disadvantage getting back to work.”
Editor’s Note: Dalhousie University officials didn’t accept an invitation to be interviewed for this story.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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