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Coming back or staying home: U of T students weigh the costs of online university

U of T's approach to COVID-19 draws concerns about quality of learning, university experience
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JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY
JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

As we enter the fall 2020 semester, the coming months will look completely different from ever before. As U of T continued to reveal more information this summer as to what a hybrid semester would look like, with some classes that were until recently planned to be in person moving online, campus students are still uncertain as to how the year will play out. 

Between lamenting activities that normally mark the start of a fresh year and navigating multiple new platforms for classes, and without the benefit of the interpersonal connection that arises from physically attending university, students are left to weigh their options for the coming year.

Location matters — even online

Regina Angkawidjaja, a criminology and industrial relations and human resources double major, is one of U of T’s thousands of international students. As a student from Indonesia entering her second year, she was left with countless decisions on her plate in light of U of T’s decision to go hybrid in its course delivery. She was uncertain about her options and her ultimate choice of whether to stay home or come to U of T.

The Varsity initially spoke to her in early July. “It’s pretty uncertain if I will go back in the fall… I’m still waiting on whether or not I secured a residence space at my college,” Angkawidjaja wrote at the time. “The university’s ability to accommodate my housing for the fall is one of the major factors I have to consider.” 

Since Toronto is the most expensive Canadian city to live in, finding appropriate housing is crucial for international students, especially when their tuition can be up to nearly 10 times what domestic students must fork over for their education.

“Taking online classes with the same international fees feels unfair,” Angkawidjaja wrote. Although she acknowledges the additional cost that comes from locating classes to different platforms and interfaces for online learning, she doesn’t believe that online learning and in-person learning should cost the same. 

In a typical year at U of T, the cost of tuition covers not only education but also several services, such as the use of athletic centres, child care, access to general social events, maintenance of the campus, and more. In an online university setting, especially for those not returning to campus, students would benefit from few of these addendums. Though online options for some of these services are in the works, the chances of them being on par with in-person activities are slim. 

Angkawidjaja also pointed out a crucial gap that U of T appears to have overlooked in the move to hybrid learning: for students on the other side of the world, immediate location isn’t the only major factor. Time is one, too, and it influences international students even more.

“One thing that I feel the university could do better is the lack of asynchronous courses,” Angkawidjaja said in an interview with The Varsity. “A lot of the courses are synchronous. For us on the opposite side of the world, the classes are mostly between 12:00–6:00 am. That’s definitely really challenging.” 

Unsurprisingly, comparisons of U of T to other universities arise. Major institutions like the University of British Columbia are offering both “day” and “night” courses to avoid forcing international students to become nocturnal for a year. U of T’s hybrid plan is being criticized for its lack of accessibility given that the institution otherwise publicly celebrates its diverse student population.

When The Varsity caught up with Angkawidjaja recently, it learned that she has decided to stay home in Jakarta for the fall semester. A few points cinched her decision. First, her parents were concerned about her safety since she would have to fly for 24 hours, and if she caught COVID-19 during her journey, she would have to take care of herself alone in Toronto. Second, most of her friends from Jakarta are also staying home for some duration this year.

Finally, Woodsworth College could not offer her residency this year due to the limited space. However, if the situation improves, she hopes to come back to Toronto in December or January, but that still remains up in the air.

Not every major is the same

For Alana Ngo, her final year at U of T sounds nothing like what she expected. As a music education major, she will not be able to experience online learning that even comes close to a semblance of her first three years as an undergraduate.

“There’s a lot of things we can’t do — for example, large ensembles,” Ngo said. “We can do our private lessons online, but the quality [of sound] on Zoom and Google Hangouts is just not as good as being in person. I also think that as a music education major, it’s hard to do things practically, like conduct or practice teaching, because we don’t have anyone to practice with.”

Oddly enough, faculties that fundamentally depend on practicals, such as architecture and music, have either declared that all courses will be delivered online or that the information is still “to be released” and “subject to change.” 

Sending graduating students out into the world without the hands-on experience they require can deeply affect their career eligibility in the future. Students who need labs, residencies, or nursing placements are bound to have less confidence in their work if they graduate without this necessary experience. 

This isn’t just for students heading into the workforce, either. Depending on the field, some students have hands-on learning opportunities from their very first term, building a foundation for their later years in education.

With such circumstances, the quality of education will inevitably fall short of the mark this coming year. To a certain degree, many of the shortcomings are even out of the hands of the university. As every institution globally is navigating these unprecedented times, missed opportunities and lesser experiences will undoubtedly arise. However, for many students, it is the lack of transparency, a more controllable factor, that is problematic. Decisions are difficult to make when wait times for further information seem indefinite.

“I would definitely appreciate more communication as to when we would know [updates] or at what point we’d be able to enrol for courses… just a little more transparency,” Ngo said. 

Students in the Faculty of Arts & Science may be frustrated that many in-person classes have been cancelled or moved, but the volume of information released from that faculty has been great in comparison to others, possibly due to the greater volume of students enrolled. For those in smaller faculties, however, there is still little direction on what the year will look like.

Is a gap year worth it?

With all of these drawbacks, a gap year would seem to have its advantages. If the quality of education will inevitably decrease, waiting for a more normalized year could be a viable option for many. In turn, having a mental break, saving money, earning money, or learning a new hobby or skill are all options in a school-free year. 

However, for Alanna Kong, a second-year student from Vancouver studying global health and French, this idealized version of a gap year is just not possible in the world’s current economic and social climate.

“The main reason I’m returning is that I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t go back to school,” Kong said in an interview with The Varsity. “I could work, but it’s been difficult finding even entry level, minimum wage jobs at the moment, and I don’t feel comfortable working in person as I live with vulnerable family members. Remote jobs are an option, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to secure a position as they’re in high demand as well.”

Simply finding work and keeping busy for the year is not wholly realistic for many, especially when they live in high-density cities where jobs have become few and far between. And for many, keeping busy has become crucial.

“I could also just take a break, but I enjoy having the schedule and deadlines that classes provide,” Kong said. “I’m at my least productive and feel slightly lost without structure, and the external pressure makes me work harder. Additionally, there is social pressure from my family and, to a lesser extent, my peers to finish my degree as quickly as possible. The idea of me taking a gap year has probably never crossed my parents’ minds.”

Since the hustle and bustle of university life has been instilled constantly through our culture, keeping busy can be difficult to let go of. And if students can take synchronous courses, the schedule of classes can bring much needed structure for those who are homebound. After all, school has been a framework that many students have mentally come to depend on.

So, will online learning last?

Despite a gap year being far from perfect, the disadvantages of online learning cannot be disregarded either. Lack of interpersonal connections, difficulty in communicating clearly due to poor wi-fi signals and infrastructure, increased distractions and decreased accountability, and high fees are all issues that must be addressed when the majority of course delivery will be online.

However, having an online option may still prove useful to some students in the coming years. While in-person learning is generally favoured, no two students are the same. The money that is saved on housing, food, and a medley of other expenses can make a good trade-off for some students that want a future as free from student debt as possible. 

In looking at how online learning may affect students moving forward, Angkawidjaja offers a more hopeful take. 

“A lot of students’ mental health can be affected by [online learning],” Angkawidjaja said. “Maybe the university will come up with more resources that will help students more that can be useful in the future. For example, online mental health resources… are things that will be useful for the future.” 

As a university that is notorious for its lack of support in the mental health department, the new difficulties that students are facing may be the push that the school needs to build a more robust system. Ngo reflects that the need is greater than ever.

“I know that, since the pandemic, mental health has been a big problem for many people,” she said. “I think that the uncertainty of many things affects people poorly… many people are anxious about online learning as well. Without clear communication or accessibility resources, it’ll definitely take a toll on mental health.”

University is more than just its classes

If access to education in the classroom was the only factor at stake, it might be simpler for students to come to a satisfactory course of action for the coming year. If money is an issue, online learning is the solution; if your program does not lend itself to virtual schooling, your priority might be to grasp one of the few in-person spots within the classroom.

In reality, the university experience goes far beyond the hours one spends in the classroom. Though extra activities and experiences don’t always appear to be crucial, many students are looking for a place to make into a home for their four years of undergraduate studies. In turn, that home can either support or detract from their overall mental health.

While online learning in Canada may not be subject to the same visa crises as the neighbouring US, much of what makes up university life can no longer be this year. And while some may view life on campus as a mere addendum, Kong points out that it is often collaboration and community that leads a student into the best frame of mind to learn.

“I find it easier to stay focused when I can see other students doing the same,” Kong said. “Learning from the comfort of your home reduces travel time and is more convenient, but I miss seeing friends and classmates and being able to put names to faces.”

It’s difficult not to feel like a number in a sea of TCards when you’re in online calls for hours a day with your screen blank and your mic off. In turn, the impetus to break that awkward silence and participate is a far greater barrier.

Angkawidjaja reflected on her experience in her first year participating in multiple clubs. She pointed out how deeply important community is in school.

“Clubs allowed me to explore my identity and various interests while meeting so many different people from diverse backgrounds,” Angkawidjaja wrote. “I was fortunate enough to meet most of my closest friends through these clubs. It has impacted my university life through teaching me that focusing on my academics wasn’t everything.”

“Before I came to UofT, my identity was mostly anchored on my grades and achievements,” Angkawidjaja wrote. “Ironically, coming into such a large university filled with competitiveness, I’ve learned that my identity and self-worth cannot be anchored on something prone to fluctuation and volatility.” 

While the University of Toronto Students’ Union is slowly releasing information on what the community on campus may look like, the information is still vague. Though a “Clubs Friday” is on the horizon, what that actually entails remains unannounced. Learning from others, building relationships, and learning what you love through hands-on experience is going to be difficult this year.

Ultimately, though students come from varying years, majors, and home locations — and have different ultimate goals — the overall consensus is that options are limited. And in reality, this year will most likely not offer everything that students need or want in the long run. Waiting can be worth it for some, while taking a year off cannot be justified for others.

There will be a learning curve and an opportunity for growth no matter what path a student chooses. University may be far from perfect this year, but this is a year for growth and learning to navigate adverse circumstances, which, ideally, are lessons that students can carry far beyond U of T.