Collage of UBCO Student Workspaces; by Sam Grinnell

The year 2020 has been, without exception, a radical adjustment for every student and faculty member at UBCO. So much so, that it has become a running joke amongst friends of mine that whenever someone mentions “COVID-19,” we pretend to be completely oblivious to the meaning of the word. What makes the joke funny —its complete absurdity—is exemplary of just how widespread and substantial this pandemic has truly been. Indeed, back in March of this year, on Friday the 13th (the timing here amusingly fitting) students, faculty, and staff received a decisive email from our President and Vice-Chancellor, Santa J. Ono, announcing the transition to online classes effective immediately and thanked the faculty and staff that had assisted the university in moving through this “unchartered territory.” Since then, students and faculty have continued to work towards their academic goals largely through the medium of technology, and the majority of students have yet to set foot on campus since this dramatic transition. In fact, the number of students currently living on campus is approximately 350, compared to last year’s total of 1,650 during the Fall semester—a staggering drop of roughly 80% in our on-campus student population. Indeed, while UBCO still schedules its courses based on Pacific Standard Time, there are students attending these courses not only in different time zones across Canada but also in different time zones across the world due to the international student population, which accounts for over 15,000 students across both campuses. As such, UBCO’s student body has become almost diasporic, and even those students who are still based in Kelowna are experiencing the challenges and isolation of absorbing an education through the blue light of their laptop screens.

Because this year has undeniably been a journey through unchartered territory, it is no wonder that many students are frustrated and disappointed with various aspects of their online learning experience. Moreover, we, at The Phoenix, have a responsibility to amplify the voices of our fellow students through this established platform, which is what this article aims to do. We reached out to the student body through social media, texts, and calls in order to gather honest and direct feedback about our fellow students’ personal experiences of learning online in these unprecedented times. After receiving this feedback, we created a tally of themes and ideas that were frequently mentioned in students’ anecdotes. Those themes included the following: the negative impact of isolation and online learning on mental health; feeling a lack of community and support; an unmanageable workload; a sense of disorganization from professors (especially related to how some professors manage their Canvas pages); the unfairness of full tuition costs despite the dramatic reduction in facilities, services and, in some cases, quality of education; and the lack of sympathy and flexibility shown by some professors. In order to represent these anonymous student voices in the most candid and straightforward way, we have compiled a selection of noteworthy quotations that we received from them:  

“As someone who struggles with a learning disability and is forced to learn from a screen, it definitely comes with its own battles; emotionally, mentally, physically, and relationally. I think many other students can relate to this as well.”

“The online environment makes it really difficult to create a warm and welcoming space. If UBCO could find a COVID-safe way to enhance campus life, that would be the best way to enhance the social experience in my opinion, even if it is just labs or office hours in person (masks, sanitizer, and distancing enforced of course).”

“I am finding that many of my profs have very disorganized Canvas pages and do not notify us when assignments are due. If UBCO could find a more standard design for all courses, such as limiting the number of homework submission platforms and enforcing use of the Canvas calendar it would make online school so much easier to keep track of!”

“Some of us end up doing schoolwork for 10+ hours a day because of the ungodly number of assignments we’re given. Sitting at a desk, looking at a computer screen—that’s what a usual day looks like for me.”

“Online school has potential upsides if done properly. Students could structure their time how they see fit and have a flexibility that was never possible before. Student experiences would be better if UBC embraced the unique opportunities of online school and made it a flexible learning environment. Trying to make online school as close to in-person learning as possible has simply resulted in a terrible experience for students. I wish UBC would stop trying to make online school like synchronous, in-person classes because it will always fall short.”

“Something valuable that health experts across the world have learned from this particular pandemic is that streamlined, simple, and clear messaging is essential, and this is something that both the university and our professors could benefit from as well.”  

“There could be a bit more consistency; most of my teachers seem to be adapting differently to online teaching and I wish there was a bit more of a standard for them to work with. Everything is posted or submitted in different spots, and some don’t use the calendar feature whereas others do. So, keeping track of what’s due is a bit of a mess.”

“I had hoped to make unique connections that could direct me in understanding how I can use my university experience and degree to give back to society… but I guess that won’t be possible this year.”

“A requirement for professors to record lectures would be a large improvement, as there are various legitimate reasons that students can’t attend lectures and some professors’ unwillingness to do this makes school a lot more challenging.”

“I don’t find myself as focused or as motivated as I used to be. Not being in a study environment is really challenging, as I feel like you can so easily get distracted.”

“It is difficult to separate work/school/home life when everything is mixed together and maintaining mental health has been a real challenge.”

“The act of learning is significantly more taxing and, sometimes, impossible or unmanageable, especially with the pressures of the pandemic amidst regular life.”

“It’s so hard to coordinate time and have a group meeting because some of my teammates live in different time zones. Also, most people are affected by weird timings of their midterm. My friend had to write hers at 1.00am-3.00am (there was no 12hr window).”

“It seems that UBC thinks that online classes have the same quality as offline ones and so they charge us the same tuition fees. They don’t understand the reality; we pay tuition fees, textbook costs, and yet, it’s just us largely teaching ourselves the material. I don’t see any value for the money I’ve spent.”

“I am struggling to complete everything assigned. This has also resulted in me not having enough time to take part in any of my hobbies. Therefore, online schooling also takes a great toll on my mental and social well-being.”

“I think it is important to remember that students have responsibilities and interests beyond just schooling and we are struggling to balance everything. One suggestion I have is limiting pre-recorded lectures to under an hour because students take much longer than the pre-recorded lecture time to learn and take notes.”

“I like that lectures are recorded so I can go back and rewatch parts of lectures that I don’t understand. I think going forward beyond COVID, UBCO should consider having professors post lecture recordings even when they go back to teaching in class.”

“Going to university is about so much more than the material that you learn in class. The collaborative aspect, relationships with professors and other students, verbal communication skills and in-person group work, among many other things, are what really make a university experience valuable, and these are all things that I find to be absent throughout online learning.”

“Overall I just don't feel that I'm getting my money's worth out of this education.”

“I feel as though we would benefit from a more streamlined and regimented structure that professors must adhere to. If the university could reduce the amount of time students spend simply figuring out what they need to do, our lives would be a lot better.”

While the overwhelming response from students regarding their online learning experience has been undoubtedly negative, it is important to highlight the positive aspects that often result from discomfort brought about by sudden change and disruption as a way to maintain hope and optimism in the midst of these challenging times. This sort of global pandemic is by no means a new concept, yet experiencing a pandemic in our increasingly globalized and technology-based world is new for all of us. Ironically, while the pandemic has separated and isolated many of us, its global and collective reality is also something that unites us. We are all experiencing the effects of this pandemic—albeit in different ways—but our shared experience of living through this significant and historic moment is something that can ultimately bring us back together.

In the past, we have seen how both global and local, and political and social upheavals have inspired artists, writers, and musicians, amongst others, to create work that is a reflection of, or a response to, these turbulent circumstances; Mary Wollstonecraft famously published her A Vindication of the Rights of Women in the wake of the French Revolution and the work consequently had a significant impact on subsequent movements for women’s rights and suffrage. Similarly, the genre of Romanticism itself was largely a reaction against the rapid industrialization and the scientific rationalization of nature that proliferated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. As such, Romantics such as William Wordsworth and William Blake focused on nature, human emotions, and freedom of expression. To be sure, products of culture are inextricably linked to the events and conflicts of the world in which they are made. And in this way, the pandemic that we now face is almost certain to be the foundation and inspiration for cultural works that are produced in the months and years to come. Perhaps in similar fashion to the Romantics, we as students and faculty who have been glued to the light of our laptop screens for the past months, will also begin to react against technology and turn, instead, back to nature. Perhaps we will embrace and appreciate the very things that the pandemic has deprived us of: our friendships and physical connections, our social lives in bars and restaurants, and our freedom to gather and form tight-knit communities.

Our hope in writing this article is to follow in the tradition of writers of the past centuries who have used their words to respond to their environments and to incite change where it is needed. We would like to thank the many anonymous students who shared with us their personal experiences of online learning, as well as the staff and faculty who have made efforts to adjust the entire structure and nature of their work to adapt to the current circumstances. Online learning has the potential to be effective and progressive in many ways, but this abrupt pandemic has introduced immense challenges to that potential. It is only through our collective efforts and understanding that we can make the best of our inescapable present reality. We should not forget that change allows us to learn and grow; the lessons we learn now will benefit not only us, but also future generations to come.

The Phoenix intends to adapt this article into an email that will be sent to the Provost, in hopes of further enacting change in the ways that online learning will function in the foreseeable future.