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Opinion: Breakout rooms, professor access, evaluation changes — online learning presents many benefits

U of T should incorporate positive differences into post-pandemic strategy
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Online learning has some U of T students split. ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY
Online learning has some U of T students split. ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY

While there are clear challenges and frustrations associated with U of T’s recent shift to online learning, these changes do help improve the quality of education in a number of ways. As classes get underway, keep an open mind. You may find Zoom university to be a more hospitable place than the U of T of the past.

Given the opportunities the pandemic has given us, U of T should consider how to integrate the positive aspects of online learning back into a post-pandemic campus environment.

Breakout rooms

Finding a community at U of T is difficult enough without the added element of not being able to meet people in person. But, ironically, the shift to online learning can help you connect with people more easily.

Some of the courses that U of T offers, particularly in first and second year, have extremely large class sizes. During some of my large in-person lectures, it was difficult to find seats next to the same people every day, meaning that there was not much consistency in the people with whom I interacted during lecture.

In contrast, this semester, breakout rooms in Zoom enable students in large lectures to consistently work with the same small group of students, making it easier to form connections.

In one of my lectures — which has close to 200 people enrolled — our professor splits students into the breakout rooms of the same three people every class.

Even after only one week of lectures, seeing these same three people has provided a sense of community that my large in-person lectures did not.

Access to professors

Another way that online learning has improved my experience in big lectures is by making it easier for students to ask their professors questions.

During a large in-person lecture, a student who raises their hand to ask a question may not be in the professor’s line of sight, leading to unanswered questions and a general feeling of awkwardness from said student. More commonly, students who struggle with large social settings can find it difficult to speak up in front of an authority figure and in a room full of their peers.

In many online lectures, however, students can type their questions into the chat, limiting the chance of missed questions and easing the anxiety of speaking up.

Additionally, every student in the class can see the questions in the chat. In the event that a professor is not able to answer a student’s question in a timely manner, another student can jump in.

In my education so far, asking questions during lecture has been essential for me to gain a thorough understanding of the course material. Making active engagement more accessible can go a long way in improving a student’s interest level for a particular subject.

Changes in evaluation

There are two major differences I have noticed in the modes of evaluation for online courses this semester in comparison to the usual methods, and I think that both of these changes are beneficial for students.

First of all, I have noticed a shift from having only a few heavily weighted assessments to frequent assessments with course marks distributed more evenly among them.

This shift encourages students to keep up with course material more regularly and also creates a more forgiving grading scheme.

For example, in most of my courses last year, my final marks were almost entirely based on the results of two midterms and a final exam. Because I did not have weekly assignments worth a significant portion of my mark, I found that I had difficulty prioritizing habitual review of course material. Instead, I would try to learn everything in the last couple days before a test.

I found that having a large portion of my mark based off of a small number of evaluations was unforgiving, in the sense that having a bad day on the day of a test could be a huge detriment to my final grade.

In contrast, in an online course that I took this summer, our mark was based off of 11 equally weighted problem sets, with one problem set due each week. Because I regularly had to hand in assignments that were worth a significant portion of my grade, I was motivated to stay up to date with course material.

I ended up getting more out of that course than I would have if I had crammed all that learning into only a few days. As well, having 11 equally weighted assessments as opposed to only a few meant that I could mess up a problem set or two and not be penalized too harshly.

I have also found that a majority of course grades now come from assessments that are not timed, whereas before COVID-19, the most heavily weighted assignments were often timed tests.

Many students I know, myself included, do not do their best thinking when they are under time constraints or are not able to work quickly enough to complete tests within time limits. With a larger emphasis on non-timed evaluations, students’ grades can be more reflective of their understanding of the material, rather than their ability to work under pressure.

Variance across programs

Some of the new approaches toward education that have come as a result of COVID-19 may be better than the approaches that were used before. However, while my experience may have been positive overall, there is a huge variance in how some professors are choosing to make the switch to online learning.

No one individual experience will mirror another’s in these unprecedented times. Students are largely at the mercy of their faculty, program, and teaching staff when it comes to the quality of education this year.

Given these lessons, U of T should create a new approach that combines in-person learning with the continued practice of the positive changes that were made as a result of the pandemic.

Talia Shafir is a second-year cognitive science, math, and writing & rhetoric student at Innis College.