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From the mouths of students: Fall 2020 online learning thoughts and concerns

By Nikayla Goddard, September 3 2020—

As the primarily online Fall 2020 semester approaches, there have been many student concerns floating around regarding technology requirements, the cancelled UPass and its replacement, residence changes and more. But the most expressed concern has been around the decision to move to mixed delivery, though primarily online, courses for this semester to ensure the safety of students, staff and faculty. President Ed McCauley had announced in an email statement to students that the primary aim is to have approximately 30 per cent of the student population physically on campus at a time to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 infection spike. 

“In coming to this approach, we were guided by the need to protect the safety and well-being of our campus community and the need to deliver meaningful, high-quality, student-centered learning experiences,” McCauley said. “Combining delivery methods means students who wish to have face-to-face opportunities can safely have them.”

It was only a matter of time before the concerns built up and became actionable items in the form of advocating for lowering Fall 2020 tuition under the reasoning that what students pay for primarily in education is quality, which many students say drops significantly with moving to online teaching. One such petition created by Esther Nwafor states that, “This is clearly sub-par education in comparison to the previous in-class sessions, but our tuition does NOT reflect that.” 

To gauge if more UCalgary students had a similar sentiment, the Gauntlet created and distributed a survey asking students to give their thoughts and concerns about the upcoming semester. Some of the questions included whether or not students feel the university is doing the right thing by having classes online, if tuition should be lowered due to online delivery, what the university needs to do to help students succeed, what challenges they as students will face and whether the university is handling the pandemic appropriately. Of the 30 students that responded, five of them agreed to share their names and remarks to be quoted, and their quotes are mixed in with the general consensus of the anonymous surveyors. 

Fifth year combined natural science and geography student Bailey Knapp, whose classes are entirely online, says that having classes virtually is the right thing to do, though tuition should be lower.

“Some profs adjusted to online really well in the winter but some did not,” she wrote in answering what stresses her out most about this fall. “I’m afraid of getting a prof that did not make arrangements or adjustments for the course to be online because that was really hard in the spring.” 

Fifth year drama student Nickolas Bishop, who also has entirely online classes, agrees, adding that he is stressed about forgetting deadlines and will face the challenge of keeping schedules, and says that “flexibility” is what he needs to be successful this year. He said the only complaint he really has about the upcoming semester is tuition: “If they had lowered tuition I’d have no complaints,” he wrote. 

MacKenzie McDonald, another fifth year drama student, has some of his classes in person this semester like 17 per cent of participants who answered the survey, while the rest are entirely online. Having drama courses, as well as mainstage productions or rehearsals, online would be a “huge setback” for the drama department he says, but adding that the move to online courses was the wisest course of action. Of the 17 students who responded to the question “Do you think the university is doing the right thing by having classes mostly online?” 16 of them agreed with McDonald’s opinion, which is yes.

“Even as we decline in the number of active cases in Calgary, we must take every action we can to maintain that decline rather than bumping it up again with more in-person classes,” he wrote. 

In terms of lowering tuition, he wrote, “It would be nice of course, but as students learning under teachers with expertise in their field, we have to understand that we’re paying for that expertise. And since the teachers remain the same online the expenses should remain around the same.”

McDonald then later added, “My response relied on the fact that tuition could only be decreased if the university could cut down on other expenses to make sure they didn’t lose money. But then I found out that some classes that would normally be limited in size when done in person have around 80 people taking it online, so that actually changes my opinion a bit. If this is a common trend with online classes, then tuition could be lowered since class sizes are growing exponentially. The university would still be making a profit while each individual student can save a bit of money at the same time.”

In terms of the university’s response to the pandemic, McDonald was overall content, writing, “They shut down sooner rather than later when lockdown started and they’re rolling out a healthy combo of online and in-person classes.”

Caitlin Wong, a second year commerce student who has entirely online courses, agreed with the university’s actions overall as well.

“While I’m not sure if the university’s decisions were the most efficient, they definitely took extreme diligence and have been able to prevent and limit the community spread on our campuses. Despite this, I am really hoping that we will able to return back to normal on campus in the near future,” she wrote. 

Wong also believes tuition should be lowered. 

“I will not have access to as many (or any) on-campus resources and having online lectures will restrict my ability to easily communicate and engage with my professors for each course,” she said, adding she was feeling stressed about, “Having the inability to socialize and engage with my fellow classmates in each of my lectures. Also, having restricted access to study spaces on-campus will affect my usual study habits.”

Fifth year drama student, Alexa M., who has some classes on campus like McDonald, said that she also believes tuition should be lowered, and her main concern is around online learning requirements. 

“I live at home with two adults who are working full time and already are taking up the wifi. I’m nervous about school being the same,” she responded. She also stresses about finding the “time and energy” to be in class and wants “more asynchronous classes, cheaper tuition, and easier projects.”

Many students beyond the Gauntlet survey share these concerns about tuition right now. The Students’ Union Advocacy survey received 1,189 responses, which included topics surrounding COVID-19 and what the SU could do to better serve students. As far as tuition and fees were concerned, 39 per cent of respondents reported being concerned about being able to afford their education for the 2020-21 academic year.

The quality of education is being questioned as well; when presented with the statement “I believe that my anticipated tuition costs for the Fall 2020 term reflect the quality of education I expect to receive,” 79 per cent of students either disagreed or strongly disagreed, which also jives with the Gauntlet survey responders’ sentiments.

Some students also shared Alexa M.’s concern over access to technology — 16 per cent of SU survey respondents said they were concerned about their access to technology, and nearly 60 per cent of survey respondents either do not have, or are unsure if they will have, access to a quiet, distraction free space off campus to participate in lectures, study, take exams or do research. 

These concerns accumulate into difficult situations for many students who feel their education may be compromised as a result of a combination of hits from paying tuition with less or no summer income, learning online, compromisation of education and balancing education with other aspects of their lives. 

What else could the university do to better support students? Main student comments include hopes that professors and the university could provide more flexibility, understanding, communication and general academic support for students who struggle to learn online. With a trial run for some courses having taken place during spring and summer courses, some students are hopeful that these wishes will be granted, while others are preparing for a tough semester.

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