Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
By Elisa Do, Staff Writer
For many of us, the last few weeks have certainly been a novel experience. The spread of COVID-19 has caused in-person class cancellations and the disruption of our typical day-to-day lives. As with most universities across the globe, McMaster University has moved courses and examinations online. Although the transition is necessary due to the current circumstances, it is also important that we take a closer look at what this change can mean for students and the impact it can create on our learning.
Online courses require students to have access to the Internet in order to complete coursework. However, not every household can afford internet costs, and not everyone lives in areas with access to the Internet. In 2017, only 37 per cent of rural households in Canada had access to internet speeds considered standard for regular Internet usage and approximately only 24 per cent of households in Indigenous communities had access to standard-speed Internet service.
This can prevent students from frequently participating in their online classes; especially for online tests or examinations that require stable and continuous Internet access. Also, classes may require students to tune in to video conferences or watch lectures online, activities which require high speed Internet.
This is compounded by another change that students are currently facing: students no longer have access to public libraries or study spaces that were once available to them. Even if Internet access is a problem at home, libraries used to provide students with the resources to maintain their studies. Without libraries, finding Internet access can become an even greater challenge. With all this in mind, it would be beneficial for instructors to permit greater flexibility within course structures. Depending on the course itself, making alterations such as options to opt out of final exams or to complete presentations via alternative methods like telephone, could provide the necessary support for students during this time.
Also, without public study areas, not only do students lose out on possible resources such as hard copy books or technology, but they are also unable to study in an environment that is not their home. Many students go to libraries in order to be in an environment that encourages focus and motivation. Speaking from my personal experience, I often find it difficult to focus on work-related tasks in places such as my home, which is designed for comfort and relaxation. I realize that when studying at home, it is natural to feel less motivated as the environment also plays a role in conditioning me to be at ease.
Furthermore, many campus resources are only available in person. For example, peer support resources from McMaster Students Union services such as the Student Health Education Centre, the Women and Gender Equity Network or Maccess can only operate in-person. With these services closed and the volunteers at home, students who may wish to access support no longer have that opportunity.
Aside from peer support, many students also visit the Student Wellness Centre to access counselling services. With the current circumstances, students can no longer access counselling in-person, and group programs within the Student Wellness Centre have also been cancelled. Being away from all the mental health support that had previously been offered on campus can negatively affect how students are dealing with their mental health at home.
That is not to say that folks at McMaster are neglecting support options for students. Many educators are working hard to continue course office hours and the Student Wellness Centre is also providing appointments online and by telephone. However, without in-person communication, there is still a barrier to how accessible these services can be. Through social distancing, individuals are forced to take the initiative to reach out to others via virtual options or online messaging. It means that students can miss out on engaging in social interaction if they do not proactively seek out others. And it can also mean that those who may want mental health support don’t know who or where to turn to with these sudden changes.
Because of how novel this experience is for so many of us, it is crucial that we remember it is okay to feel overwhelmed. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, so it is fair that students may also feel uncertain at times. Although I think it is wonderful that many people are encouraging one another to partake in productive activities throughout the day, I think it is also super important that we are reminded to accept that there has been a change. It’s all right for our day-to-day schedules to look different and it is totally fine if everything seems to be going at an unusual pace.
Studying from home poses a variety of barriers and these barriers impact each and every student differently. During these times, it is essential that we are more considerate of how physical distancing can affect our learning. Students should not have to feel guilty about taking time to adjust to these new changes and instructors should also keep in mind that students are most likely in a different headspace as they adjust. As we all work together to continue figuring out how we can make this difficult time a little more easier, let us encourage greater flexibility in students’ learning and do our best to minimize any additional distress being away from campus may cause.