AVPS Listening Session; screenshot taken from UBCO Events

UBCO’s new Associate Vice-President for Students, Dale Mullings, held an online student listening session titled, “AVPS listening session: the virtual student experience” via Zoom on October 2nd, 2020 from 10am to 12pm. The session was moderated by Liz Hilliard. The purpose of this listening session was for the new AVPS to listen to students’ virtual experiences. He “is planning to hold monthly listening sessions with students on a variety of themes related to [our] experience.” I appreciate the opportunity Mullings provided for students with this listening session. However, the event had under 30 attendants—a mix of faculty and students. Albeit, it was only the first listening session, I expected more students and staff to participate. Students, especially international students, pay substantial amounts of money in tuition and fees, even while classes are delivered remotely, and students more than deserve to have their opinions and experiences heard by faculty and staff.

The topic of the first AVPS listening session was the virtual student experience, but the event’s emphasis seemed to be on discussing students’ virtual outside-of-the-classroom experiences. The discussion was guided—students were encouraged to reflect on the following:

  • Why did you choose UBCO, and are we meeting those expectations for you still today?
  • In what ways has this year been a positive virtual experience outside of the classroom?
  • What has been the most challenging aspect of your virtual student experience outside of the classroom?
  • If you could change one thing to improve the virtual student experience, outside of the classroom, what would it be, and how?
  • If you could keep one aspect of the virtual student experience, when we’re able to be together again in person, what would it be?

Evidently, in these questions, the phrase “outside of the classroom” was purposefully emphasized and repeated multiple times. It is interesting that this first listening session advertised these questions to exclude some aspects of the virtual student experience, for they focused on the experience outside of the classroom; but students would benefit more from discussing all aspects of their virtual experiences.

Despite this particular focus, student voices and opinions were raised regarding a myriad of points. The conversations included positives and negatives surrounding UBCO students’ virtual experience, both inside and outside of the classroom. However, at one point, when the discussion became predominantly centered around virtual challenges, the moderator specifically redirected the focus back to positive online experiences. Perhaps the moderator did so to emphasize what UBCO has done well under current circumstances, and while that is understandable—it was a telling moment for the listening session.

To me, it then became apparent that the session held a bias towards positive student experiences, especially outside of the classroom. Rather than redirecting the conversation to the discussion questions and the positives of the virtual experience, UBCO faculty need to be willing to hear all of the difficulties that come with current student circumstances and work toward helpful solutions.

The reality is most students are facing more challenges than benefits with virtual learning, especially inside of the classroom. For example, one student wanted to know if professors were receiving additional technical training and support. They inquired about this because they did not feel adequately academically supported during online learning as some professors are technologically sound and some, unfortunately, are not.

This student expressed frustration with professors who are unable to properly deal with technicalities, for this results in confusion and a lack of student support. An administrator present explained that this transition has been a learning curve for professors and has also impacted UBCO resources and systems. There are more intense demands on IT and teaching and learning centres, so they have had to triage different priorities and increase resources for professors in order to help them design their courses. The admin concluded that these pressures on the system come from the reality that online learning is not a predominant platform at UBCO.

The staff present certainly did hear an earful of student feedback and encouraged student opinions and discussion, but ultimately it seemed like there was an implicit preference as to what experiences should be at the forefront of the conversation in this first listening session. When some students diverged from the discussion questions, other students felt inspired to do the same. As a result, I have to wonder, if students did not raise their negative experiences so voluntarily, would they have been as thoroughly discussed?

In addition, with the extra work that comes with navigating online learning, many students simply do not have spare time to devote to discovering virtual experiences outside of the classroom. A few students shared that they have no separation between their school and home life. They explained assignments are taking twice as long and that they feel bombarded by homework as there is extra participation work that requires additional writing on discussion boards outside of class time. Admin suggested students build a calendar and schedule break times and noted professors should stay within class time boundaries and UBCO time. They also reminded students that the BARK program will be running virtually, which may help alleviate added stress.

At the end of the listening session, it was concluded there should be more of an involved forum where students can directly speak with professors about what is working in a virtual setting and what is not; like a joint-townhall. This was concluded because of the implicit bias in this event. Students wanted to share a range of their experiences and the first listening session did not appear to be the best platform for this. An open townhall where questions are generated from students in advance, with various themes, would be a more effective way for students to get their specific academic concerns across. Until then, students can keep an eye out for the next monthly AVPS listening session and register so that they can have their voices and experiences heard. Students can also provide additional feedback at avps.ok@ubc.ca.