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Ooh, Hell is a place on Earth: Zoom University

By Afsah Dawood, March 18 2021—

It is now approaching a full year since the University of Calgary has made the shift to online learning. I still remember vividly the day emails were sent out declaring the university would be closed “temporarily” to determine the next steps moving forward. If I had known that the closure would extend beyond a year, I wonder what I would have done to better prepare myself — a question many must be asking. But then, the whole world was unprepared — evident in the catchy phrases that have entered our daily vocabulary: “unprecedented times,” “unforeseeable circumstances” and “the new normal.” I feel a little sicker (not that kind!) every time I hear or see the words “in these challenging times.” However, perhaps now that we have a better understanding of the “constantly evolving” situation, we may truly be adjusting to a new normal. We can reflect on the ways we can make this experience just a little more tolerable.

What was really unprecedented was realizing how difficult it is to adjust to remote learning. Who could have guessed moving everything online was perhaps not the most conducive to the learning process? No, really, aren’t online classes supposed to be easy? But then, listening to lectures play in the background while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram might not be the best way to retain information. I am going to go out on a limb to say this is not the fault of students.

Psychologically speaking, lockdown fatigue is real — and people everywhere are experiencing burnout at unprecedented rates. While it may arguably be possible to shift courses and learn online, it is not so with the university experience as a whole. The routine for a university student pre-pandemic was structured and absolute — there were different rooms and times when classes were to be attended and a process for having midterms and final exams. Those routines and structures helped in the learning process – learning in a physical location is the most effective way to provide successful student-teacher and student-student interaction, thus putting students in the right “headspace” to learn. Not to mention break times spent hanging out with friends or studying at the library. Removing this structure led to a kind of disorientation that I would say truly felt like having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. A regular routine now looks like sleeping in until the last moment, allowing recorded lectures to pile up, passively allowing anxiety to build while procrastinating and sitting in front of a computer zoned out daydreaming about studying at the library (what freedom!) when this hell is over.

I see the effects of this in myself and other students around me as demotivation, days blurred together and the pervasive feeling that nothing matters. Students are left wondering when they’ll get their turn for the 30 part of the 70:30 web-based:in-person class ratio. This is where professors can actively step in and help students out. There is space to be forgiving and many professors have opted to go down this path, to the relief of students. This forgiveness and understanding has manifested in lenient deadlines, one-time free passes for 24-hour extensions on any assignment (though sometimes there are restrictions) and professors whose inboxes are always open for a chat, among many other ways instructors have shown their care. In my experience, this results in more enjoyable classes and greater live-class attendance rates.

Now, let’s unpack on a macro level. There are no two ways about it: the pandemic has sucked the joy out of people’s daily lives. Even homebodies are realizing that they would like to meet people occasionally. COVID fatigue has hit me and many others in the most unexpected ways. There is an additional level of stress when making plans. As if meet-ups with friends didn’t require the stars to align anyway, now there’s the added gamble of more severe lockdown restrictions being slammed down a day before the planned meet-up. We all have people we would like to meet more often than we are able, and we have all likely gone through a period where we felt truly isolated — even when staying with our families. Research suggests that social connections boost resiliency and alleviate stress. Instructors can facilitate social connections even within the remote learning format. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I have always appreciated professors who create small breakout rooms that allow students to chat and joke amongst each other. When instructors create a space that simulates — even to a small extent — some form of pre-pandemic normal classroom interaction, I feel some of that fatigue is lifted. What other students can do is have the courage to reach out to those that catch their eye in online classes. I, and many others, have enjoyed the benefits and outcomes of this. It may seem unreal, but you may end up finding a lifelong friend — just as you might if we were going to university physically.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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