Zoom school: how students are coping with an online semester

The synchronous, the asynchronous, and the just plain confusing

The end of winter semester’s rocky transition into remote learning was a crash course in many things, among them time management and the dreaded Zoom meeting. This semester, we have the benefit of starting courses that have already been structured for remote and often asynchronous learning, and we’ve at least had the time to prepare ourselves for it. As much as we’re experiencing these things together, it can be hard to commiserate when even small friendly gatherings can pose a significant health risk. And beyond being a social challenge, isolation from each other hurts us as a student community. Sharing and contrasting our experiences is what shows us which struggles are overarching – which issues we need to pressure the university to fix, and which we can just gripe about in the group chat. Over the past few weeks, I spoke with a group of upper-year McGill undergraduate students from different backgrounds, faculties, and time zones to get a better sense of the struggles we have in common.

Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone reported being overwhelmed, Zoom-fatigued, and bracing for the weeks to come. Many students spoke about the challenges of balancing their time away from screens for both their mental and physical health. Several explained that the amount of screen time they expect this semester will exacerbate health conditions including migraines, eye strain, and chronic pain. This isn’t helped by courses with mandatory live lecture attendance, which can also be a severe barrier for the many students living outside of Eastern Standard Time.

Among them is Sreena Ghatak, a U2 International Development Studies major who is currently living in India, which is 9 and a half hours ahead of Montreal. Asynchronous lectures have made things much easier for Ghatak, but they still feel the pressures of not attending classes in real time. “Being in a different time zone makes me really anxious because it always feels like I’m missing something or doing something wrong if I don’t stay up to do my classes even though it’s at 2am,” they wrote. The anxiety extends beyond schoolwork and into the social sphere, as well. Like many students living outside EST, Ghatak finds the time difference makes it nearly impossible to make connections with other students. “I have no communication with any students in 2 of my classes,” they explained. “Usually, I’d make a friend in class to study with.” Missing out on what little connection we can find with other students can be demoralizing, on top of the isolation that online learning already presents. But thankfully, Ghatak’s professors have been understanding and inclusive of their needs, including providing a 48-hour gap between assignments.

“Being in a different time zone makes me really anxious because it always feels like I’m missing something or doing something wrong if I don’t stay up to do my classes even though it’s at 2am.” – Sreena Ghatak, U2 IDS

Some professors have introduced new assignments in an effort to maintain (and grade) participation remotely. Because group discussion can be complicated when you’re trying to keep asynchronous students like Ghatak included, many professors have elected to use discussion boards on MyCourses or periodic reflection assignments instead. But these developments aren’t sitting well with some students. “What professors don’t seem to realize is that this is 1) a significant change in workload, and 2) even more screen time,” explained Nicole Perkins, a U4 Philosophy student living 3 hours ahead of Montreal time. “It is definitively not the same type or level of engagement to have an in-class discussion and to write a 300-word blurb that other students can read.”

Valeria Lau (U2 Political Science) agreed, saying, “one hill I will die on is that discussion boards […] don’t actually replace the role of in-person discussion.” Lau described these short assignments as “mini-essays,” explaining that “the amount of work that discussion boards require is usually disproportionate to the percentage of the grade that they affect.”

For Perkins, stricter participation requirements have a particularly strong impact: she experiences chronic illness and occasional migraines. In a typical year, Perkins would have relied on the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) for accommodations, including relief from stringent attendance policies. This semester, though, it’s become more challenging. “Now, no such [accommodation] is possible because ‘participation’ is all virtual and standardized for all students.”

I am so systemized now. I AM a spreadsheet.” – U2 Econ, CompSci

Attendance is not the only concern students have with OSD accommodations this semester; students are already experiencing difficulties when it comes to assessments. While Bryan Buraga (U3 Sustainability, Science, and Society) is clear about his appreciation for teaching staff and the OSD, he admits that seeking time-based accommodations has been harder than usual this semester. He’s already had an assessment in one of his courses, a timed 20-minute quiz for which he usually receives extra time. When Buraga requested this accommodation, “the prof was like, ‘I don’t think I’m actually able to do that, like physically on MyCourses. But go ahead and do it, let me know how it goes. If it doesn’t go well, I’ll just drop that one and try to find a different solution.’ which is like… not exactly accommodations.” While this was frustrating, Buraga didn’t hold it against his instructor: “it’s not the prof’s fault, it’s the tech’s fault.”

Even so, the fact that McGill’s chosen technology poses problems for students in accessing OSD accommodations is troubling. It’s up to the university to resolve these issues and remove barriers for students.

Another issue coming into focus this semester is the extreme increase in organization and time management that semi-asynchronous online learning requires from each student. “The remote nature [of this semester] makes your schedule a lot more flexible, but in a bad way,” wrote U3 Political Science and History student Alex Karasick. “If you’re not careful you’ll lose track of when things are and when they’re due.” The struggle to stay on a self-imposed schedule when each course has many small, moving parts has been challenging for many students, especially those who experience executive dysfunction. The lack of outside study spaces is also becoming more challenging, as students who usually separate their workspace from their home are forced to do higher workloads than normal in the spaces they usually use for relaxation. This adds up to an incredible amount of stress, and a lot of uncertainty for overwhelmed students. But even those who would feel confident about their organizational skills in a normal year are having difficulties. U3 Nursing student Annalise Patzer expressed frustration with the lack of standardization and organization on the part of her instructors, writing “now that our world is online, there’s no place for disorganized mycourses [pages] that have missing links or frankly, having things like a syllabus or lectures uploaded […] days late.”

Part of the difficulty is the amount of freedom given to course lecturers and professors in designing their online course structures. While on one hand, it’s a source of creative, engaging curricula, leading to immersive and interesting assignments and lecture delivery (including podcasts and fully produced videos), it can be a source of stress for instructors and students alike. When there’s too little structure, professors can be disorganized and students feel lost or frustrated. When there’s too much, course sites can be overwhelming and students struggle to keep up with course requirements.

Some professors have elected for “business as usual: online edition,” while others have gone too far in the other direction, incorporating what students feel are too many new strategies. The best courses seem to strike a careful balance, relying on enough remote strategies to keep students engaged without becoming confusing. Ultimately, though, the most important factor seemed to be consistent, easily-accessible recordings of course activities. When asked about the positive aspects of remote learning, Lau wrote,“The lack of distractions available when lectures are recorded in a clear and concise way has been helpful.” While some students struggle with scheduling time to listen to pre-recorded lectures, Lau (among others) said that she “like[s] being able to complete all of the lectures for one week in a short amount of time.”

But in order to make creative use of remote learning tools and produce clear, concise recordings, course instructors have to be comfortable with the technology. This often doesn’t seem to be the case, and most students wished professors had familiarized themselves more with the software prior to the beginning of the semester. “It’s pretty complicated to navigate online classes when half the time the profs know even less about operating it than we do accessing it,” said Karasick. To be clear, few students I spoke with were frustrated with all professors in general. Many went out of their way to express their appreciation for their instructors, who are mostly going above and beyond to provide a positive learning experience. Even still, the most common stories I heard were about instructors failing to use Zoom effectively, or at all.

“I don’t feel like I can take the time to go on walks or do things for myself because the computer is always there always with asynchronous things to be doing” – Annalise Patzer, U3 Nursing

Part of the difficulty is that professors and teaching staff have had to restructure their courses and adapt their teaching styles to a platform that was never designed to be used as an educational tool. As Jonathan Sterne, a professor of Communication Studies, put it, Zoom “basically got lucky” in achieving its status as the ubiquitous teaching software. Even if Zoom were built for education, Professor Sterne explained, the semester wouldn’t be running perfectly; “No amount of training or practice can fully prepare anyone for dealing with a new technical or social arrangement.” For a school the size of McGill, with staff at various levels of technical experience and comfort, things are especially difficult. Even Sterne, who has been “putting some part of [his] courses online since the 1990s,” has been struggling. “I have never worked harder to get my courses up and running than this term.”

When I asked what students would like to see from their professors this semester, the subject of grading came up often. Several students expressed concern that professors were preparing to use the same grading strategies (and strictness) as in previous years, despite substantial changes in course delivery methods, significant additional pressures on students in terms of mental and physical health, and financial concerns. U3 Political Science student Wynn Rederburg suggested that profs “be fair about grading this semester, almost more so than last,” emphasizing that “last semester was half over by the time things shut down, but this semester I feel like there’s even more of a learning curve.” Though school remains in session as “normally” as possible, students seem to feel that being graded without accounting for the continued emotional and physical burdens of the pandemic would be unacceptable. It’s hard (even for McGill) to argue with that.

“It’s pretty complicated to navigate online classes when half the time the profs know even less about operating it than we do accessing it” – Alex Karasick, U3 PoliSci, History

Some faculties of the university seem to be hit harder than others by the constraints of this semester, including the faculty of Nursing. One U2 Nursing student I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, described how challenging the changes have been. They explained that Nursing has a strong focus on group work and a close community, which has almost entirely disappeared as many classes move to complete asynchronicity. Whereas in a normal year, they would be doing two days of clinical rotations per week, this semester, “clinical is like, a month-long block where we’re going to be working full-time,” the student explained. Because of this change, almost all lectures are pre-recorded, and students aren’t expected to do classes during their block of clinical rotations. What this means, though, is that it’s up to each student to pace themselves so they won’t fall behind. For this U2 in particular – who is taking 18 credits this semester – that means “rather than doing one three-hour lecture a week, I’m doing, like, two for most of my classes, in order to get as much done as possible before I’m in clinical [in October].” This heightened workload makes the lack of community much more apparent, and more difficult. Your go-to study partner may be in their block of clinical (working full-time, and therefore unavailable) or in a completely different part of the course from you.

While the anonymous U2 expressed that their professors have been very understanding, summer communications about what Nursing would look like were unhelpful at best, and insulting at worst. “The communication we were getting specifically about Nursing […] kind of had the tone of, ‘When you’re a nurse, you’re going to have to deal with unexpected things, so just deal with it.’ And they wouldn’t give us any information. […] I was very, very stressed over the summer trying to figure out what the school year was looking like because they only really told us a week before classes.”

Richard Heller, a Psychology student in his second year, also described feeling out of the loop when it came to remote learning. After taking the previous semester off to work full-time, Heller found himself returning to an academic landscape that felt totally unfamiliar. “I received absolutely no information in terms of like, how it was supposed to work, or what was expected of me,” Heller said. The need for clear communication is more obvious for first-year students, as one upper-year Nursing student explained, “If I was in U1 Nursing right now, I don’t know how I would learn anything. […] I really relied on other people within the Nursing community to help me out […] but doing it all by yourself, I feel like that would be very overwhelming. I really can’t imagine how I would personally manage it.” But Heller isn’t the only returning student who feels left behind. Beyond technical information about Zoom and McGill’s remote learning strategies and policies, many students feel that they’re missing another critical piece of information: how to advocate for themselves.

“I hope profs as lenient with us [in terms of grading] as we’re being with McGill, regarding delivery challenges” – Wynn Rederburg, U3 PoliSci

Sarah Bounouar, an upper-year Management student, mentioned a particular course in which her professor explained that, because online courses make cheating easier, students would not be able to receive a grade higher than 85%. According to Bounouar, the professor explained, “If you’re wondering where the fifteen points went, well, I’m just not giving them.” While Bounouar was able to drop the class immediately, she noted that not everyone could: it’s a required course for marketing students. Though this is an exceptionally bad situation, almost every student I spoke with had experienced an uncomfortable or untenable course environment. However, no student knew exactly where to go for help — and it’s not because they haven’t been looking. In a recent media Q&A session with administrators, a representative from the Daily asked about the mechanisms in place to keep professors accountable to equitable and fair online learning. While the Associate Provost Equity and Academic Policies, Angela Campbell, spoke to McGill’s stated support for students – assisting with and providing technology, encouraging professors to make their courses accessible and somewhat asynchronous – none of the administrators present provided answers about what students can do when a professor is not following those mandates. Though the administration provided several links to online resources, including study tips and Zoom guides, clear avenues of self-advocacy and accountability were noticeably absent from them.

“I wish my profs gave us a resource besides themselves to go to if we had an issue with how our course was being run” – Annalise Patzer, U3 Nursing

This isn’t to say that there are no options at all, though they are slow and inefficient. In response to an email from the Daily, SSMU VP University Affairs Brooklyn Frizzle provided a list of potential actions students can take to advocate for themselves. However, they expressed no surprise at the lack of clarity from administration, writing, “to be honest, there aren’t many good mechanisms available to students.” Several students spoke to their desire for better ways to speak up, including Annalise Patzer. She explained over text that “its just 10x more difficult when your only form of advocacy is thru email and ur just HOPING the prof can sense ur frustration or will reply to you ‘within 5 business days.’”

Hopefully, avenues for seeking accountability will become clearer as the semester progresses, and one of the strongest tools we as students have to make that happen is pressuring administration together, as a community. The most striking through-line in all of my conversations was a lack of community and closeness because of remote learning and isolation – a lack of what characterizes McGill at its best. Maybe the knowledge that we’re all missing the little things – chatting with an acquaintance in the library, meeting up with friends to study, making a new connection in a lecture hall – can be an encouraging reminder. The process of speaking to other students about what’s scary, comforting, and stressful was helpful for me, and hopefully sharing what I heard can be helpful for others. We can and should be open about how hard this is, and in doing so, we can figure out how to make this semester healthier and happier for all of us. It’s also good to remember why we’re here, separated from each other and navigating such a complicated semester – one which will hopefully improve as we learn and adapt. In an email to the Daily, Professor Sterne wrote, “Covid cost everyone something. If our main complaint is about some rocky first classes, we should count ourselves fortunate.”

Brooklyn’s recommendations:

  • You could submit a complaint, in writing, to the Chair of the Committee on Student Grievances. It’s actually a pretty powerful Committee and has the power to remedy most complaints BUT there’s no timeline for a decision and only two students sit on the Committee;
  • If the professor is violating the Charter of Students’ Rights, you could submit a complaint to the Advisory Council on the Charter of Students’ Rights. Complaints submitted to the CSG can also be referred to the Council but it has largely the same problems as the CSG;
  • You could contact the OSD for accommodations, although that won’t fix the problem for other students and its a bit of a long process; or
  • You could write to the Chair of the Department or even the Dean and basically hope that they care enough to step in.

There are also a couple of good support systems available to students regardless of which route they decide to take:

  • The LICM can advise you on which route to take or even advocate on your behalf to the CSG or to the Advisory council. LICM Advocates are kind of like student lawyers;
  • The SSMU Student Rights Researcher and Advocacy Commissioner can advise you on your Student Rights. They’re helpful if you don’t know whether or not your rights are being violated; and
  • I can advise you on the options available to you and informally advocate on your behalf to Professors, Department Chairs, Deans, and other admin.

Brooklyn can be reached via email at ua@ssmu.ca.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Richard Heller as a Nursing student; he is studying Psychology.