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What must be done to improve online learning for the fall semester

By in Opinions

Imagine if a global crisis caused school to change its form completely. Instead of students congregating in large numbers in a building to learn, technology became the primary instrument to teach and learn lessons from. 

Sounds familiar? It’s because this picture has been our lives — and the world’s too — since mid-March when the university moved all classes online due to public health concerns regarding COVID-19. Now that we’ve been through a month of online school, including altered syllabuses — drastic changes in some cases — online lectures, the onslaught of daily emails from professors and writing exams at home, it is time we reflect. 

And reflect we must, because if the university’s COVID-19 update earlier this month is any indication, online learning is here to stay for the Fall Term — a not so distant future — and maybe even more long term. 

Let’s start with what we did right. Although it felt as if my phone never stopped buzzing, and my inbox saw massive growth daily, I did appreciate the constant updates. It stressed that in a very uncertain situation, we were all in it together. 

The empathy of some professors, expanded help hours and quick transition from physical labs to virtual ones, also rightfully earned checkmarks in my books. However, to make this a more universal experience for all University of Saskatchewan students, across any major or year of study, we must address areas of improvement in communication, class content and consideration for the uncertain times. 

Good communication is the thread that holds the many different pieces of a class together. A professor communicating their material in an understandable manner, having space for discussions, and office hours are all critical to allow students to make the most of their learning in the course. What happens when these quick but important conversations cannot happen as they used to? 

That’s when we must make way for creative solutions that facilitate efficient communication. While emails do provide a means to communicate, they aren’t quick, limit discussion between the class and can become very difficult to sort through when every class uses the same platform. Instead, professors should consider faster means of communicating with more access, like a class site with a discussion section, that allows for students to ask and respond to their fellow classmates’ questions. 

So many of us primarily use technology, from our phones to social media, to communicate. It’s time we bring that spirit of connection and efficiency into our classrooms too. 

For online courses to offer the same value as their in person versions, course content must be top of mind. As a science student, labs and tutorials are really important. They offer space for students to do many things, from working out their logic with a T.A. on a computer science assignment question, to learning how to execute and use important techniques for research. My science education would not be the same without labs. 

So when it comes time to adapt courses to an online format, departments must consider the best possible way to capture the course. If your course involves a lab, don’t skip it. Instead, look to move it online — doing simulations of the experiment, at home practicals and sharing results from past labs is a good start. If interactive discussions are key to your course, try video sharing platforms. If group projects are involved, provide platforms for your students to meaningfully engage with each other. 

Lastly, for online learning to reach its audiences, there are factors beyond the screen we must consider. When university facilities like libraries close, students lose valuable spaces that are quiet and conducive to learning. Not all of us have alternative spaces like these to use for eight hours or more. 

There are many more considerations. Going online means having stable internet connection and reliable technology. This too must be recognized as a privilege and not assumed as things that everyone has access to all the time. The consequences of a pandemic are stressful and student’s mental health must be prioritized too. This means ensuring access to mental health services and health care. 

While replicating the environment and form of in person education is a near impossible task, we cannot let our education suffer either. This pandemic has given the university a chance to update, refine and improve its online learning services. By addressing gaps in communication, class content and context, we can develop meaningful partnerships between students and the university and make this fall semester one to remember, for the right reasons. 

This op-ed was written by a University of Saskatchewan undergraduate student and reflects the views and opinions of the writer. If you would like to write a rebuttal, please email opinions@thesheaf.com.

Vaidehee Lanke | Opinions Editor

Graphic: Anh Phan | Design Editor

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