A Macbook displaying the McMaster Welcome Week 2020 website.Photo by Steffi Arkilander

If we have the ability to hold more accessible events, what’s stopping us from doing that?

This year, McMaster University’s Welcome Week was held entirely online due to the physical distancing restrictions in place for COVID-19. As a result, many events took place through platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Discord, Zoom and Twitch.

Events were held in two different ways. There were synchronous events, or events that took place during an allotted time with live representatives, that ranged from as early as 8 a.m. to as late as 8 p.m. On the other hand, some events were asynchronous and a long period of time was provided for first-years interested in participating and had no live component to the event. For example, the McMaster Students Union website scavenger hunt, which could have been completed any time during Welcome Week, required students to search through the MSU website to complete tasks. However, asynchronous events seemed to be few and far between, when we should be aiming to hold more events that don’t impose specific timing restrictions in order to increase accessibility for Mac students.

There are many issues with synchronous events. The first issue arises with the fact that the Welcome Week schedule is in eastern daylight time, which automatically puts international students at a loss. During an in-person Welcome Week, many international students are already disadvantaged, as events largely cater to English-speaking students. In addition, domestic and in-province students often know a few students going into McMaster, whether it is a family member, high school classmate or friend, which can ease the transition into university. On the other hand, international students may rely on orientations such as Welcome Week to make friends. 

Since many events take place during EDT daytime hours, students who have large time zone differences may find it hard to attend events as many events will occur during the night for them. In addition, some platforms used for synchronous events are Twitch and Discord, which are blocked in China. This adds an extra barrier for students who want to attend events but are living outside of Canada. McMaster has provided the option for students in China to use a free express virtual private network to access McMaster’s online learning resources, but it’s unclear whether this will include extracurricular activities that are not related to academics. 

It is important to note that many of the synchronous events were held multiple times throughout Welcome Week. For example, the faculty of social sciences held an event titled “Let’s Chat About It” which was held at four different times on Sept. 7. In addition, some Welcome Week events were recorded, which gives students who could not attend access to information they may have missed. While these are good considerations and we should continue to provide multiple options for students, we need to continue to strengthen these accommodations by making them completely asynchronous. Although recorded events are great, they do not provide students with an option to interact and engage with the event other than watching or listening to a video.

Although recorded events are great, they do not provide students with an option to interact and engage with the event other than watching or listening to a video.

Another issue with synchronous events is that many of these events are held either very early in the morning or during normal work hours, which prevents many students from attending. While past Welcome Weeks events also occurred at these times, it is now likely that more students are working part-time or full-time to make up for the financial strain that COVID-19 has had on everyone. Early morning events, on the other hand, can be difficult for students to attend as COVID-19 has had an impact on many people’s ability to have a consistent sleep schedule.

What we do know is that we have the capacity to run asynchronous events. The MSU website scavenger hunt proves that we can successfully hold asynchronous events. Making asynchronous events that are interactive and informative makes the event more accessible for students who may not be able to attend events at specific times due to a difference in time zone, a day job or because they’re dealing with sleeping problems.

Making asynchronous events that are interactive and informative makes the event more accessible for students who may not be able to attend events at specific times due to a difference in time zone, a day job or because they’re dealing with sleeping problems.

Asynchronous timing of events is something that we should consider continuing for events taking place throughout the school year. As we continue to physically distance and cope with an ongoing pandemic, many students are facing additional challenges that may not have come up during a normal school year.

Some people may argue that asynchronous events are harder to plan — and while that may be true, we shouldn’t avoid planning more accessible events just because they’re more difficult to hold. If Welcome Week is supposed to help first-years build community with their peers, we shouldn’t be leaving certain groups out of Welcome Week just because it’s more convenient.

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