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Opinion: Where Zoom university falls short, U of T must step up to invest

Quality, cost of education, lost campus experiences pose significant challenges
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In the wake of the many tumultuous months following the COVID-19 outbreak, new and returning students are settling into an unexpected landscape: a shift to majorly online-only delivery of courses and lectures.

These circumstances position us to ask some tough questions about whether an online education is worthwhile.

No online alternative to campus life

The most pressing drawback regarding the shift to online-only delivery is the closure or restriction of campus and in-person facilities. University life — or expectations of it — will be dramatically different for some, especially when we gravitate away from simply talking about courses and classrooms.

Among those chiefly affected are first-year students and upper-years transitioning to U of T, who are facing a slew of adjustments to a traditional experience.

Residences across the board will only offer single residency rooms, which strikes out the possibility of living with a roommate and can adversely affect the fostering of close-knit communities — an experience that many first-year students tend to look forward to.

While clubs, co-curriculars, and student life events can be organized and run online, a range of their programming — in the form of access to staff support and a host of physical facilities — will be constrained.

Restrictions to accessing recreational facilities and the halting of U of T athletics this year will also inevitably hinder students from finding a community through sports and physical activities.

The lack of incentives to engage with the wider U of T community in the midst of online course delivery will disconnect students from the social aspects of campus life. In addition, students may feel removed from the unique experience of being on campus.

These factors of student life comprise a sizable part of an ideal student life for many. U of T needs to take action to address how a student’s university experience this year will be severely hampered — and acknowledge that a holistic education is more than just a classroom experience.

A lower quality of education?

While these concerns are pressing, there is also a portion of students whose concerns rest more in the compromises that online-only formats make.

The baseline costs of satisfactory digital access are a real barrier to many, and unsatisfactory access — technical difficulties in the form of connectivity issues or inadequate technical training among teaching staff — will accordingly detract from the classroom environment.

Travel restrictions and the complications arising from unsuitable accommodations will strain the efforts of students and instructors alike. Many are forced by circumstance to remain abroad this year and can be bogged down by inconvenient time zones, causing them to participate in their classes at ludicrous times. This poses a huge challenge to effectively engaging in lecture.

The university must continue with its pledge to both deliver a quality education and ensure that the needs of its diverse student body are being met. 

Rigidity of costs

Despite strong sentiments for reductions, tuition costs will remain the same this academic year and not reflect the change in course delivery and reduced access to campus facilities. In fact, international fees are still increasing as usual as part of U of T’s budget, while domestic tuition was kept the same following a provincial mandate.

The issues surrounding tuition costs are multifaceted and a number of students have taken to The Varsity and social media platforms to express their frustrations.

It’s important for U of T to recognize that many students must take stock of their financial situation and budgets before deciding to enrol. The university’s inflexibility to alter its fee structuring for the shift to online-only delivery is the result of a number of complex factors. Nevertheless, this places an extreme burden on many students to decide whether pursuing their education this year is worth it.

Many must weigh — to the dollar — the benefits, costs, and risks of enrolling in classes this year. Contrary to the assertions of the university, many clearly see the shift to an online-only delivery as a downgrade in the university experience.

The university must uphold its responsibility to safeguard the equality of opportunity for its students, especially those who face the greatest challenges ahead in terms of affordability. To ensure a worthwhile experience this year, the university needs to go above and beyond its normal standards to ensure equity and quality in education in these novel times.

Andre Fajardo is a fifth-year political science and philosophy student at Innis College.