The realities of U of T students in the age of ‘Zoom University’

Accessibility, mental health, and buying VPNs around the world
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

On March 13, U of T announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person classes were cancelled beginning March 16. In the following days, libraries and campus resources were shut down, federal and provincial borders were closed, and many students left the city to return home. 

On March 25, U of T announced that all summer courses would be delivered online, and by May 19, U of T sent an email saying that the fall 2020 semester would have a mix of in-person and online courses.

Given the massive shift in how U of T students are taught presently and in the future, I wanted to examine what online learning looks like across the province and around the world. How can communities support each other from afar? Could online courses play a more permanent role in U of T’s future?

From my childhood bedroom in Hamilton, Ontario, I spoke to students and professors in rural Ontario family homes, downtown Toronto apartments, and quarantine hotels in China about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a university gone virtual.

Accessibility concerns for students

Eliana Morin, a second-year student studying economics and international relations, spoke to me from Thornhill, Ontario, where she now lives with her godmother. She spoke to the joys of having the time to eat breakfast each morning without having to attend lectures.

However, the success of virtual learning depends on how a person likes to learn. “I do much better if I have someone in front of me telling me things rather than having some sort of audio file,” Morin said. “I have unreliable wi-fi, which is the worst thing on earth for me.”

After relocating to Thornhill, Morin had her international economics midterm as planned five days after in-person classes were cancelled. Students had two hours to upload photos of written solutions. Morin highlighted the need for professors to consider students with unreliable internet connections in designing online assessments.

“If they had given me even 10 minutes more than the standard two hours, I would have been fine,” Morin said. “Because my wi-fi stopped at the last minute… I couldn’t upload something, and I missed [some] marks.”

A university spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that U of T is “developing a best practices guide to help with connectivity issues,” and recommended checking the university’s recommended technology requirements. They also drew attention to a space which has been opened up at UTSC to provide internet access to students who need it — something that the university is currently working on providing at the UTSG campus as well.

Eli Scott, a second-year student studying cognitive science, spoke to the difference in experience created by COVID-19 from her downtown residence. She does not have her own desk, and she did not have her own room until one of her roommates recently travelled home. Scott has been spending her days working at the kitchen table with her roommates, but she has struggled to focus due to her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Pretty much everyone with ADHD at U of T — a really large amount of the student body — if you’re registered with Accessibility Services, you write your tests in a distraction-reduced environment… you have your little cubicle [where you] can’t see anything; it’s really quiet,” Scott said. “But then here, I’m living with four other people, so it’s never quiet.”

Closures of libraries and government notices to stay home mean that she no longer has access to an ideal environment. 

“Whereas before I got all my work done at the library, now I’m in a space that is completely not distraction-reduced,” Scott said. “It’s absolutely not consistent with my learning.”

The U of T spokesperson noted that “accessibility offices at all our campuses also remain open and we encourage students to contact them if they have concerns.”

The impact on mental health 

Accessibility issues have worsened mental health problems for a lot of students. 

“I have anxiety, and I got it treated, and now it’s back to what it was before I even started asking for help… because I feel rushed all the time,” Morin said. 

Physical distancing is another contributing factor. “Anxiety makes you feel like you’re alone on the inside,” Morin said. “Like this, you feel alone on the outside as well.”

Anxiety and physical distancing have also severely impacted Scott’s productivity, creating a feeling of loneliness.

“Added anxiety and mood issues take away from the ability [of] your ADHD medication to function. So I imagine a lot of students with ADHD are having this issue right now with the anxiety, meaning that the effectiveness of their medication is a lot lower,” Scott said. “I’m having a lot of trouble focusing. And that’s just chemical focus; it’s not even like I’m lazy… It’s a disability.”

Morin was happy with Health and Wellness’ quick transition to hold her scheduled appointment over the phone.

“I can still talk to [my psychologist], get her opinion, and I don’t have to go all the way downtown,” Morin said. “I’m very satisfied with the work that [Health and Wellness is] putting in.”

According to students like Scott, however, who are experiencing serious or compounding issues due to the pandemic, U of T’s Health and Wellness and Accessibility Services frameworks aren’t doing enough. 

“I think, really, [this is] just revealing how kind of horrible those services are,” Scott said. “They’re not good; they are not stable. The infrastructure can’t handle what U of T needs on a normal basis, let alone on this basis.”

In email communications, the university directed students to external support services such as My SSP, Good2Talk, and emergency services. However, Scott pointed out several shortcomings of these resources, noting that the My SSP chat service says it is not intended for students in crisis. 

“If you are needing to talk down from a crisis, you should probably call Good2Talk. But then Good2Talk has a 40-minute wait time, which is not ideal for if you’re in crisis,” Scott said. “Sometimes calling 911 is a good thing… but the entire province… is absolutely draining the resources of 911, so those first responders are not going to be near as fast.”

A My SSP spokesperson clarified that, while crises are difficult to manage over chat, “If a student has chatted in and has been screened at risk, we will ask them to call in or provide a telephone number and consent that we can call them right back… However, some students may only feel comfortable chatting in these circumstances, and we will support them however we can.”

The U of T spokesperson also drew attention to the university’s COVID-19 discussion forum, which is monitored by social workers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 

Scott also cautioned that students be aware of their privacy when using online mental health resources. She was particularly concerned about My SSP’s Privacy Agreement for its chat function, which indicates that some details of students’ use of the service can be shared with their institution’s electronic medical record provider and their insurance company. 

The My SSP spokesperson elaborated that “[Electronic medical record] integration with the My SSP program is not applicable to the University of Toronto, as the program is not set-up to integration with UofT’s Electronic Management System,” and clarified that the statement about data sharing with insurance companies is only included because high-level aggregate and de-identified data is provided to keep.meSAFE by guard.me for the institution’s insurance and usage reports. “This data is not in any way used to inform insurance policies or benefits.”

As schools, workplaces, health care, and personal relationships shift to online platforms, privacy and digital rights are becoming increasingly important in all aspects of life.

“I think [privacy is] something we should be able to control,” Scott said.

Internet filtering for international students

At a hotel for a mandatory quarantine after returning home to China, Yannis He, a second-year student studying engineering science, eats breakfast at 8:00 am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:30 pm — local time. That’s 12 hours ahead of Toronto. I spoke to him over Facebook Messenger, which he accessed using a paid virtual private network (VPN) service.

“The [internet] speed is super slow and I [am] never able to use it other than from 1am to 6 am. Since too many people use internet during the day,” he wrote. He also struggled to complete schoolwork due to many blocked sites being inaccessible without a VPN. “Anything Google, such as utube [sic], Google calendar, Gmail, etc is definitely blocked.”

Yanwen Mao, in the same year and program, noted in an email that although no official university websites were blocked, not having access to Google services made it very difficult for her to work on a written assignment with her team.

Both He and Mao found the connection to be too slow for them to attend online video lectures on Blackboard Collaborate, the Quercus-integrated webinar platform on which live lectures for the majority of their courses were hosted. “Bb collaborate performs poorly here, videos get stuck all the time. But thanks to one of our classmates who posts videos on Bilibili, we can still access the online lectures,” Mao wrote. Bilibili is a Chinese video-sharing website mainly used for comics and animations.

The university spokesperson commented that the university is “working working with the National Research and Education Network to optimize the path back to Toronto to enhance performance of video.”

The popular Chinese search engine Baidu also does not serve as a good replacement for Google.

“Baidu is mainly in Chinese and a lot of contents are not shown (considered as inappropriate by the government),” he wrote, adding that it’s “mainly used for searching entertainment information instead of academics.” 

He and Mao both found it difficult to work with Chinese search results for concepts they had learned in English. “I personally don’t like to translate between the two languages while searching for my school work,” Mao wrote.

Many students in China use VPN services to access blocked websites. “It’s necessary even though it slows your network speed,” Mao wrote.

“Good VPN costs money. Take the one I’m using as an example, it costs me $60 (US) for 6 months… Most free VPNs can’t even complete the loading to a blocked website,” she wrote. “A possible thing I can think of for the school to try to help students in China really is to provide VPN access to them.”

According to the university spokesperson, U of T provided utorVPN access to undergraduate students late last semester. “[Students] should be able to access it from any location, but there could be restrictions within some countries. In addition, we are testing an authorized VPN that will be located within China that should provide an additional avenue for students there.”

“We are aware of the difficulty some students are facing because of internet access, both in Canada and abroad. The university’s IT experts recently surveyed all summer students to determine what types of challenges they are facing and are working on ways to reduce those challenges… We are aware that certain sites like Youtube, Facebook and google search may be blocked from within certain countries. We remind students that they have access to the full O365 suite, that allows access to numerous collaborative tools.”

Mao was grateful that many professors had considered students in other time zones in their updated course plans, and she noted that the university is already doing a lot. 

“The 24/ 48 hr time slot to complete quizzes and exams really helps… Everything [that happens] after noon in Canada means they take place at midnight in China… The recordings of each lecture also help this situation for sure,” Mao wrote. “As it’s a personal choice to go back to the home country, it’s understandable that we need to take responsibility for that move,” she noted. “I feel like anyone from anywhere is experiencing difficulties.”

An expert take on how we learn online

Clare Brett, Associate Professor and Chair of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), guided her dog out of her home office to tell me what she has learned from over 20 years of teaching online.

“The big criticism years ago of online learning used to be that it had huge dropout rates, and it was kind of second-rate,” she said. She highlighted the upfront work required to create an online environment. “You have to introduce and set up a course very, very clearly. There’s got to be a lot of redundancy built in. I use lots of little videos, short ones, to introduce myself, to talk to the students, to model things, [and] to give feedback.”

Her early teaching work inspired her current research, which is studying ways to build community in online classrooms. 

“It became very clear over time that interaction and a sense of community was a very, very big piece of the people staying in the course,” Brett said. “People would stay in a course and not drop out because they were really enjoying it, and they felt already committed to the community.”

Her research group has developed a web-based collaborative student workspace called PeppeR, where they have experimented with various online learning features. They have investigated motivating students with gamification — the addition of game elements to learning — added social media tools such as ‘like’ buttons to provide feedback, and examined the differences between private and public online settings, “where much of what you do online is working with other people in the course.” They’ve also created private channels for instructors to communicate with students. 

“It allows you to give just-in-time feedback, for students to ask questions without losing face,” Brett said.

As summer courses go online, professors who go the extra mile to build their classroom community could see big gains in their students’ commitment to the course. The Community of Inquiry model of online learning — which describes three presences: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence — supports Brett’s research.

“When things are working well, all of those things are happening together, and each reinforces the other one,” she explained.

Currently, Brett is leading a team of graduate students helping OISE faculty move their courses online. 

“We’re going to be working with faculty individually to help them with the instructional design process of putting their courses from a face-to-face to an online format… in a way that’s sensitive to that faculty members’ prior experience doing this sort of work,” Brett said.

She also spoke to the importance of integrating mental wellness and mindfulness activities, such as time for open discussion, into classes. 

“At OISE, we integrate wellness activities like mindfulness and so forth; many people involved include that as a part of their classes,” Brett said. “Again, it builds community, and it settles people down, and it makes them feel heard and seen. And that’s very important.”

Is online education the future?

Brett believes that there is potential for the university to adopt more permanent changes to course delivery methods once in-person classes resume. The Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation, which is already providing support in this area, could help implement those changes. 

“I think once faculty spend this time ramping up to more online methods, they may end up maintaining some of those tools and having more mixed modalities in their teaching practice moving forward,” Brett said. “It’s kind of a social experiment right now, isn’t it?”

However, CUPE 3902, the U of T education workers’ union, wrote in an email to union members that it “does not support the transition to online classes as a long-term pedagogical policy” and “vehemently [opposes] any attempt to use this situation as a precedent for phasing out physical classes.”

Some professors believe that increasing their online presence will decrease the in-person community. Naomi Morgenstern, an associate professor and associate chair and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of English, teaches ENG250 — Introduction to American Literature and keeps the course’s virtual presence to a minimum during a regular in-person term.

“I don’t post slides and recordings in order to encourage people to show up and be part of the discussion,” Morgenstern explained. “When I’m actually in a classroom teaching, I adjust so much of what I say to students’ responses. Especially in a large class online, that’s really difficult.” 

Over her 20 years teaching at U of T, she has noticed a shift in students’ sense of classroom norms away from physical presence and conversation, largely coinciding with the rise of online culture. She fears that the transition to online learning will only worsen this change. 

“I do think it also intensifies things that were already a problem, which is this idea of a course being something that you access entirely as an individual, as opposed to as part of a more social and engaged interaction,” Morgenstern said.

However, some students pointed to equity issues associated with keeping course content offline. Savanna Blade, a second-year student studying engineering science, does not learn well in in-person lectures, which she often has for five to six consecutive hours in her schedule. 

“I typically am not a person that can attend lectures all the time, and I found that, mentally, it doesn’t really work for me all the time,” she explained. 

She also pointed out that, depending on students’ financial or medical situations, they may be forced to miss lectures for work or illness. 

“Forcing students to attend classes in order to succeed, there are going to be students you’re disadvantaging by doing that… because it’s not always the student’s choice as to whether or not they’re able to attend,” Blade said.

She argued that being able to go through lecture recordings online at her own pace initially has helped her and would improve accessibility for students unable to attend lectures. 

“It was an easier way to take things at my own pace and let myself learn the way that I feel comfortable learning,” Blade said. “The knowledge that I have access to everything that I need to make sure that I succeed in this program is really beneficial.”

Like most of the students and professors I spoke with, Blade was hopeful for the future. 

“Teachers have really had to think about what students were potentially disadvantaged [when choosing] how to run courses,” she said. “I think that reflection process will become really valuable when things start to go back to normal.”

Editor’s Note (June 15, 1:27 am): This article has been updated to include comment from U of T and My SSP. Furthermore, a previous version of this article indicated that My SSP does not offer help during times of crises, that My SSP data could be shared with students’ U of T medical records and insurance companies, and that U of T does not provide students with a VPN service. This article has been updated to correct for these inaccuracies. The Varsity regrets these errors.

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