The alarm blares through Raiza Fernandez’s deep slumber. The clock reads 8:45 a.m.; 15 minutes before class is set to begin. 

Raiza Fernandez tries to focus on her lecture class while being tempted by online shopping on a separate browser. Photo Courtesy of Raiza Fernandez.

Fernandez begrudgingly snoozes the alarm and closes her eyes for a few more minutes. The alarm awakens her again, 15 minutes later, at the stroke of 9 a.m. when her online lecture begins. 

She heaves a heavy sigh and achingly rolls out of bed. Fernandez reaches for her laptop on her nightstand and places it on her bed, turning it on. She logs into Sheridan College’s website and lets her online lecture run in the background as she browses her phone. 

“I get distracted very easily by things around me,” Fernandez said, summarizing the essence of her remote learning experience. “Online learning hasn’t grown on me.”

Online Learning Environment: Popularity and Growth

It has been more than a year since the pandemic caused post-secondary institutions to switch to online learning methods.

In that time, 75 per cent of post-secondary students had their courses moved online when COVID-19 impacted academic institutions last spring, according to a report by Statistics Canada.

The survey had 100,000 student respondents from April 19 to May 1, 2020. Participants were asked how their academic life was impacted by the pandemic. 

Even though post-secondary institutions adopted online classes to help students fulfill their course requirements for the year, one in ten, 7 per cent, of participants reported they were unable to complete some or all courses. 

The proportion of students unable to complete some or all online courses during the pandemic varied by field of study. Students in the services and trades industry experienced a 10 and 13 per cent incompletion rate, respectively. 

Students surveyed had concerns about their grades, the ability to complete their credentials as planned, and whether their credentials would be equivalent to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nidhi Patel tries to focus on her online lecture. Photo Courtesy of Nidhi Patel.

Nidhi Patel, a Supply Chain and Global Logistics student at Seneca College, can’t help but compare the switch to online learning as a catastrophe. 

“The shift to online learning was no less than a disaster,” she said. “It was also stressful as it was a complete change in the studying environment. I wasn’t getting accustomed [to it].” 

Valerie Irvine, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s Education Department, says that online learning has been around and has evolved through the years. 

“Because online learning has been around for a long time, we started with basically web pages and email,” she said. “Increasingly, we’ve been getting more dynamic tools.”

“I think there’s this assumption of online learning as what the reputation it used to be. And bringing that forward. Also, we’re fighting against the tools that are being given,” she said. 

Irvine compares the online learning space to the likes of a lecture hall where the tools to teach the students matter a lot. 

She says that some institutions were or are quickly transitioning to emergency online learning by creating course shells as fast as possible; the instructors put up the content and then asking students to drop in their assignments. 

“But that doesn’t teach itself,” Irvine said. 

She argues that the original design of online learning was tailored to those who were unable to attend face-to-face lectures, such as those seeking the flexibility design of programs and courses online. 

Valerie Irvine talking about the evolution of online learning within the last decade via zoom. Photo Courtesy of Klaudia Kryczka.

Irvine provides the example of people with disabilities, such as mobility issues and mental health concerns, and individuals who had work shifts during on-campus lectures would benefit from the remote learning model. 

 “As horrible as the pandemic is, you know, it is, I think, highlighting to people the importance of access,” she said. “Because now when you can’t attend your campus, folks are trying to figure out how do I extend access or the challenges to do work from home.”

Before the pandemic, Canadian universities had an online learning footprint.

Over 75 per cent of institutions had offered online learning for credit in 2019. These results are based on a 2019 report by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA).

Furthermore, the CDLRA reports a 14 per cent online enrollment increase in Ontario universities in the 2018-2019 academic year. This enunciates the prevalence and popularity of online learning at post-secondary institutions pre-COVID.

Over 70 per cent of post-secondary institutions even expected an increase in online enrolments for the following year, the CLRA reported. 

Unfortunately, the 2020 survey was delayed due to COVID. 

Irvine believes there still would have been an increase in interest and online learners had the pandemic not changed the course of post-secondary institutions. 

“I think those numbers are probably going to go up more,” she said. “Institutions are starting to bring in more flexibility and more either online courses or online programs.” 

While there is a demand for some form of remote learning, not everyone is on par with it being the sole form of learning, even during a pandemic. 

Fernandez, from India, came to Canada to advance her education degree amid the pandemic and its sudden transition to remote learning. 

“Given the fact that I wanted to experience college life in Canada, really shattered my expectations,” Fernandez said, reflecting on the past 12 months. “Online learning was something I really didn’t expect.” 

Fernandez is tired of these online lectures and being confined to her bedroom as the only learning space available to her. 

“I don’t like it,” she said. “[I] hope this ends soon enough. I feel like we are missing out on human touch and emotions. We aren’t communicating with people and we remain within closed doors 24/7, which isn’t healthy behaviour.” 

Student Stress

The switch to online learning has affected student’s mental health significantly.

Student’s depression rate was at 41 per cent in 2020. This was an increase of almost 6 per cent according to a survey by Healthy Minds Network, in association with American College Health Association.

Isolation, loss of motivation, and various other psychological impacts were the leading causes of depression.

Depression and anxiety were two main contributors that impaired academic performance where respectively 31 per cent and 24 per cent of students struggled to learn online.

In a 2017 research report called Barriers to Learning Online Experienced by Students with a Mental Healthy Disability, Dean McManus and associates enunciate that despite the accommodations of flexible course delivery, students can still greatly suffer on the platform.

“If [online learning is] not developed appropriately, [it] can inadvertently introduce learning barriers to students with disability through technology, learning resources, and pedagogical teaching practices,” the researchers said.

Irvine describes pedagogy in the educational environment as the design of the class and how it is intended to be taught.

“So, pedagogy if you think like your large lecture, direct instruction kind of thing, little interaction is a pedagogical design,” she said. “Your seminars or having breakout groups or collaborations, having learning-based inquiry approaches in the classroom, all these kinds of different ways of designing and learning.

“How you design the interaction [and] how you design the learning, is pedagogy.”

Furthermore, McManus and researchers highlight that some identified barriers of online learning include having resources that are too difficult to manage or navigate, inadequate search functions, and students being required to interact with multiple platforms or systems to access learning materials.

Sometimes these barriers can enhance certain symptoms of a student’s mental health disability and impair them from excelling academically like their peers, the report stated.

Irvine sees that a problem in the COVID online learning environment stems from the fact that institutions are buying course shells from Texas and are implementing them to Canadian universities without indigenizing the content.

She says that this issue sometimes falls back onto the institution because they are not aware of the support students need with the switch to online learning.

Irvine believes the University of Victoria has a slight edge in this because the institution is considered digitally literate.

“We’re in a tech, we’ve been doing it for a while,” she said. “We know how to make it work with different tools. But, for the rest of the 99 per cent of campuses, there’s a heavy pivot cost.”

Nidhi Patel tries to catch up on her missed lectures before she has to write a midterm exam for class. Photo Courtesy of Nidhi Patel.

If institutions continue with purchasing course shells to help keep up with online learning demand, it can degrade their learning experience, Irvine says.

“You never know when a learner is going to work on it,” she said. “They may all cram at the end of the year.”

While institutions try to accustom their services to online learning, students face an engagement barrier caused by stress.

The mental or emotional strain on students negatively impacts and disturbs their study schedule by limiting the skills required to complete the assignments on time, the McManus report stated.

Patel admits to experiencing an unwillingness to continue her online education. 

“It was becoming difficult for me to concentrate and give my best,” she said. “I was losing on my motivation to learn through this new form of learning.” 

With this loss of motivation, Patel confirms to irregularly attending her classes.

“Currently, I don’t attend all the classes,” she said.

Moreover, in MacManus’ and associates’ report, students delayed the start of their assignment because of an increase of fear and anxiety. According to the researchers, these feelings negatively impacted their studying and learning techniques.

Fernandez admits to feeling “anxious and worried about completing [assignments] before the deadline” because of the ‘extra work’ for an online class compared to the same class but tailored to an in-person setting.

Sometimes, students ask for clarification from their academic teachers but receive no response or a single statement that requires a follow-up email for a better explanation.

“Difficulty in accessing core information compounded their frustrations that despite their best efforts, the grades they received for their assessment tasks were not commensurate with the amount of time and effort invested into these tasks and were rarely a true reflection of their abilities,” the report stated.

Patel is feeling the lingering impacts months of remote learning have caused on her mental health.

“Online learning has affected my mental health to a great extent,” she said. “Due to this, I feel I am confined to the four walls of my room with no physical interaction with any of my classmates and professors.

“No matter how efficient and effective online learning can be, it cannot fill in the void of physical learning and having face-to-face colloquies with others.”

It is important to have open and available communication channels for students in a remote learning environment.

McManus’ study echoes these results as they report that nearly half of the participants regard the available online communication tools as “inadequate for interacting with academic staff and their peers.”

Students are social beings and the online learning environment limits community building because of a lack of communication, Irvine said.

“Social presence, teacher presence, and peer presence are known to be key elements of online learning,” she said. “That presence can be made through asynchronous messaging.”

Having tools, like calendly, are critical in having communication engagement designs, Irvine says.

Unfortunately, she said that decisions on effective communicating trickle down to a common program called Learning Management System (LMS).

Fernandez has felt the stress and anxiety of trying to communicate with her professors when she needs an answer regarding a time-sensitive question.

“If I have a query to ask the professor, I have to wait for days for an email response,” she said.

It doesn’t help that Fernandez feels as if there is a more demanding workload to add to the anxiety, she already feels about completing her assignments before the deadline.

“I have this feeling where the profs are giving more assignments and projects compared to the work we would have with physical classes,” she said.

But it is not just the course load that is impacting a student’s ability to study.

A 2020 U.S. college report called More than Inconvenienced: The Unique Needs of U.S. College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic, reveals that students have faced financial hardship. Alyssa Lederer and researchers estimate that 58 per cent of students worked in on-campus jobs before the pandemic.

“Substantial campus and community-based job loss for students and their families have surely heightened students’ financial hardship, making it even more challenging for them to meet their basic needs, let alone pay their college tuition,” the report stated.

For international students like Patel and Fernandez, it places an extra set of responsibilities they must manage on top of their learning experience. 

Patel and Fernandez already pay up to three times the amount local students pay for college tuition. This does not include the rent for their apartment and other necessities such as utilities, bills, and other essentials. 

They are faced with the burden of coming to Canada from overseas and seeking part-time employment to pay for their tuition and residence in Canada. Managing their online courses in a time when it is difficult to find jobs because on-campus opportunities do not exist now. 

This leaves Patel and Fernandez to fight for a job with the enhanced competition, such as those who are coming off employment, are seeking temporary jobs, and other factors that can interfere with their candidacy as ample part-time workers while being international students. 

“My work, school, and social life balance are totally disturbed because of virtual learning,” Patel said. “It had added more stress to my ongoing life which was already full of stress.” 

A growing pile of textbooks a student must read per week before their following lecture. Photo Courtesy of Klaudia Kryczka.

Fernandez reiterates the difficulties of finding this balance especially with what she believes is an increased academic demand. 

“I think this [more course work] is their way of keeping us busy so we don’t think about the pandemic,” she said. “But, this is just adding up to student life stress, especially to students who study and work to live.”

Types of Lectures

Students experience pressure in the online learning environment to have access to reliable internet and technology, Lederer’s report stated.

Before the pandemic, students who had unreliable internet and technology could access their school’s computer lab for improved internet accessibility, the article said.

However, with schools being shut down and many campus spaces with hard restrictions, it is no longer possible for students to access these services, the researchers said.

Fernandez lives with three other post-secondary students, all requiring some form of access to the internet. When all of them are on at once, they experience rendering and download issues from the servers because their internet plan is not intended for a cohort of individuals to simultaneously stream a live video lesson.

For individuals dealing with these broadband issues, post-secondary institutions, like Humber College, have offered the option to learn asynchronously, on the student’s own time, or synchronously, together which attempts to recreate the classroom setting.

A 2020 international report by Veronica Maier, Lidia Alexa, and Razvan Craciunescu state that with the closure of universities, the quick switch to online class delivery focused on course continuity and “not on online course best practices or innovative methods for online classes.”

“This is because most of the university professors never taught online classes before,” the trio of researchers said. “Or, if they did, it was mostly uploading materials for students to read or recording the in-class session and adding it online.” 

Maier, Alexa, and Craciunescu argue that despite the rise in online learning, which is seen through the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association report, a vast majority of post-secondary institutions were unprepared for the shift to online learning.

Although the report deals with a perspective on Romanian students, the analysis of the data creates a rich conversation because those problems also persist in the western hemisphere. It extends the issues of a sudden transition to online learning and the effectiveness of its teaching methods beyond Canada’s borders highlighting the brevity of dated ways in teaching.  

Screenshot example of Fernandez’s and Patel’s laptop screens when they are in a class lecture. Photo Courtesy of Klaudia Kryczka.

While Patel and Fernandez do not like their online learning experience, Irvine strongly believes it is possible that students can receive quality online learning.

To even allow for quality learning to begin, she argues that some barriers need to be removed.

 “It can’t just be there’s a video to watch or a PDF to read and they complete some pop-up quiz,” Irvine said.

Instead, it is about accountability on the instructors and the students, and it begins with showing up for class, she said.

There are a lot of factors to consider when creating an effective online learning environment.

According to Maier, Alexa, and Craciunescu, there are five key concepts professors and educational institutions need to bear in mind when creating an adequate online classroom.

The five ideas entail access to infrastructure, experience in using ICT equipment, the students’ ability to focus and self-discipline, the designed and prepared material, lecturer’s engagement in the online environment, and the interaction of lecturer-student or student-student can influence the experience of online learning.

Since this is Patel’s second full semester online, she is impressed with the way her professors have been able to adapt and learn from the previous semester experience to provide a more engaging environment.

“The techniques by the professors have improved, thus leading to their lectures being more effective and productive,” she said.

Although professors are trying to improve and learn from their previous experiences, 34 per cent of students find online learning platforms ineffective in their learning experience, according to a survey by Maier and associates.

It all comes down to the type of learning; asynchronous or synchronous.

In 2020, the most popular online platforms to allow for online learning were Zoom and Google. These results are based on a study conducted by Cristine Pires Camargo and associates in their article Online Learning and COVID19: A Meta-synthesis Analysis.

The study argued that having online interaction in a remote learning setting is important. This is because live interactions are more dynamic than recorded lectures.

Irvine understands the importance communication has in not only creating a comfortable environment for student learners, but also for engagement.

“The social dynamic is very important in building an online learning community, and also allowing them to have the time to talk,” she said.

Irvine structures her classes a little differently than what students expect. Instead of a full synchronous lesson or asynchronous video, she splits her class into three fragments. The first part of the class is a whole group session.

“We have this whole group, clarifying an assignment, direct instruction [but is not] limited to three hours [of a full class meeting],” she said.

Afterward, Irvine splits her class into groups of four students, or pods as she likes to call it.

“I put in my course outline that it’s synchronous but it’s decentralized,” she said.

In these pods, the students are required to meet in a group of four. Irvine states that the group does not have to meet at that specific moment.

“They can choose to meet on a Saturday or Tuesday night,” she said.

The end goal is to have a moment of sharing in that intimate setting of four. It is a time Irvine hopes the students devote to discussing readings, videos, assignments, and peer editing in a closely-knit setting without having the fear that they are approaching the professor with a silly question.

“We learn through teaching; you learn through explaining ourselves, listening to new ideas, or opposing ideas from peers,” she said.

The last part of Irvine’s lecture is asynchronous. This segment allows her students to watch the recorded video or read something on their own time. She intended this design to help those parents and people who cannot make the whole group three-hour class block.

Camargo and researchers argue that the pause and return feature for remote learning is a key strength of the online classroom. It grants the room for flexibility and the freedom to choose their best time to study.

Irvine agrees that it allows for adaptation to a person’s circumstances. 

“A benefit of asynchronous is increasing accessibility,” she said. 

But while increasing that accessibility there is a diminished return in engagement which is harder to produce in an asynchronous environment. 

“Usually, those things that are covered in class are direct instruction,” Irvine said regarding the modality of her three-part lecture. “So, they’re not actually missing that much.” 

Despite this model, Irvine has adapted for her students, Patel and Fernandez are still finding it difficult to stay focused with the medium. 

“I am opposed to this form of online learning because it doesn’t attract the level of attention that it should,” Patel said. “At present, we students are just learning for the sake of course completion and not for actual understanding.”

Patel doesn’t attend many live sessions anymore, or if she does, she neglects to participate in them because of the lack of interaction and engagement available. 

“I have online classes where professors try to interact and keep everyone focused and involved,” she said. “My opinion is quite negative towards this form of learning as just doing the assignments would not be enough for getting through the concepts.

“The assignments are basically revolving around the course slides and thus are limited to the course concepts and not the fieldwork.”

The key attribute that is motivating her to revisit her lectures at a later point is the interest in her field. 

“[I] manage to review [the material] through the recordings and keep track with the course schedule,” Patel said. 

She can’t help but feel a robotic sense of completion when either attending her lectures or working on her assignments. 

“It feels like I am just attending my lectures to get done with the assignments and complete the course,” Patel said. 

Meanwhile, Fernandez hasn’t had a pleasant experience with her online courses. 

“The courses in Sheridan are taught through Bongo,” she said. 

Bongo is an online learning platform like Zoom. The platform is described as a “video assessment solution that enables experiential learning and soft skill development at scale.” Bongo offers structured videos for skill practice, peer-to-peer collaboration, and knowledge application. 

“It really depends on the professor’s way of teaching,” Fernandez said. 

She recalls that professors share their slides with their cameras on while some ask random students questions to make sure they are paying attention in class. 

However, Fernandez details that some professors are just not getting through to students.

“Other profs seem like they are literally talking to themselves in the mirror,” she said. 

When moments like these happen, despite the session being synchronous, Fernandez admits to minimizing the tab and doing something else instead. 

“There are times I let the video play while I do other stuff,” she said. 

While Fernandez understands that the professors are trying their best to teach their students, the environment is just ineffective based on her experience. 

“Online learning has no way helped me concentrate and has even saturated my concentration levels,” she said. 

Online learning is something Fernandez and Patel never considered when they came to study from overseas. Based on their current experience, and their fear that they may not have attained any knowledge from their classes requiring them to put more time in re-learning the material, they would choose in-class learning without hesitation. 

“I’m just waiting for the pre-covid life to come back,” Fernandez said. 

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