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Synchronous, asynchronous, in-person — what’s in a pandemic classroom?

Three students reflect on the ups and downs of different learning styles
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REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY
REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY

As we enter into our sixth week of classes in the fall semester, students seemingly have had ample time to adjust to their classes. However, this year many had to juggle between the quirks of different delivery formats: asynchronous classrooms, with a learn-at-your-pace mantra; synchronous classes spent staring at 30 other small black squares on Zoom; and in-person, yet physically distant, classrooms.

The following reflections were written before the Faculty of Arts & Science announced that any hybrid classes — those that offer an option for both in-person and online learning — will be switching entirely online as cases rise.

As such, you might find that students talk of their excitement for future in-person classes or reminisce about the difficulty of participating in hybrid classes. Nonetheless, with so much uncertainty about the future of classrooms, we hope these reflections will provide insight into student experiences with COVID-19 learning.

When it comes to in-person class, sometimes less is more, by Jade Goh-McMillen

The first major difference that I notice going into the INI311 — Seminar in Creative Writing classroom is that, for the most part, there are two tables for each student. At those doubled tables are two spare chairs marked “Restricted Seat” and one unmarked chair in which sitting is allowed.

The doors are marked “ENTRY ONLY” and “EXIT ONLY” in all caps, and outside, on the carpeted floors and grey metal staircases of Innis College, there are big stickers with arrows. The layout of the arrows is a little confusing, and I still find myself being ejected from the building like a car from a highway when I miss my turn. But I’ve decided to find the fun in it and treat it like a little maze puzzle, even if it means I need to allow an extra 10 minutes or so when going to class.

My in-person class is something I really look forward to every week — in part, I think, because I can predict how it will go logistically. I know what I need to do in order to prepare for and go to class from having done it for two years already. Meanwhile, I — like my fellow students and, I imagine, many of our professors — am still adjusting to online classes. In a schedule full of buffers to allow for technological frustrations, I think I appreciate having one class in a familiar format all the more.

The idea of trusting my classmates comes up all the time when I talk to my parents about my one in-person class. It isn’t something I’ve had to think about much in either of my previous years at U of T, but I do think about it now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I do trust my fellow students.

My family has come up with routines that work for us: carrying hand sanitizer everywhere — 70 per cent alcohol; another thing I hadn’t paid much mind to before — laundering our masks well before we’re out of spares and showering whenever we get home. I assume my classmates have such routines of their own. It’s become almost a cliché to say this, but we’re all in it together.

With just 11 other students in my section of the class, I feel excited about the prospect of getting to know my classmates and their styles over the writing workshops and more informal bits of small group discussion we’ll have together in the next 21 class sessions.

When it comes to group work, we still sit at different tables — we form a group by angling toward each other. Sometimes one group will go outside onto the rooftop terrace, but I’ve yet to be part of such a group and so I cannot report on how it is to work while remaining distanced outdoors.

With our masks on, a few seconds of halting test words mark the start of every conversation as everyone in the room figures out how loud they need to talk to be heard by their own group without being so loud as to drown out all the others. Asking for clarification about what someone else said is commonplace now, which is a relief to me since it means nobody can tell the difference between asking because the masks muffled the sound and asking because I was distracted by the noise from a passing car’s stereo.

This year, there have been so many little things I’ve begun to notice and appreciate in ways I never had before. Maybe some of it’s a stretch of the imagination, but I find that the oddities of an in-person class this year are helping me stay grounded during these uncertain times.

On breakfast, isolation, and understanding: reflections on online synchronous learning, by Drew-Anne Glennie

Picture this: it is Monday, 10:55 am. I am in my kitchen, pouring myself a cup of coffee and talking to my roommate while I wait for my toast to pop. Suddenly, I remember that I have a lecture at 11:00 am.

I have been in this situation more times than I should probably admit. In past years, it meant abandoning my breakfast to take a brisk walk to — knowing my luck — the other side of campus. This year, it means smearing honey and butter on my toast — try it, you’ll thank me later — going into my room, and booting up Zoom.

At its core, online synchronous learning is functionally the same as in-person classes. The students complete the readings before class and the professor gives their lecture on the topic. If anything, online synchronous learning has maximized the average lecture format’s efficiency.

The hand raise function makes sure that no student goes unseen, and the chat lets students stick a pin in their questions so as not to interrupt the professor mid-lecture. Many of my professors are being more accommodating in these novel times, such as by posting their notes or uploading the synchronous lectures to watch again if necessary. Despite knowing this, however, I still find myself struggling to stay engaged with my online synchronous classes.

Online synchronous learning has made me realize that it was the informal parts of class that made my previous years at U of T so enjoyable. It feels lonely taking classes without being surrounded by a community of my peers. Digital interfaces make sitting next to a stranger and striking up a conversation impossible, and I find it difficult to get to know my professors when our interactions are filtered through a laptop camera.

Attending online synchronous classes only reminds me that these things I’ve taken for granted are gone for the semester. Gianpiero Petrigelieri, an organizational behaviour professor at INSEAD, a business school, concurs: “Every time you connect to a Zoom call, you are having two experiences at the same time: the experience of reaching, and the experience of what you’ve lost.”

I also find attending online lectures draining in a way that even hiking all the way across campus to sit in a three-hour philosophy lecture never did. According to experts, Zoom fatigue stems from a combination of factors, including difficulty in picking up on nonverbal cues and watching yourself on screen for prolonged periods of time.

Dual delivery classes add additional challenges for students calling in. No matter how hard the professor tries, there is no doubt that their engagement with the students in front of them is different from the 25 squares sharing a screen behind them. Professors in these situations are caught between the new and the old — the way they are used to teaching and online learning. I have found that everyone actually present in dual delivery classes tends to fall back on old routines as they enjoy each other’s physically-distanced company.

I worry what this means for my participation marks: will both sets of students be graded along the same curve, regardless of the increased obstacles online students have to overcome?

At the end of the day, I understand. I understand why online synchronous lectures are necessary. I understand that we, instructors and students alike, are all trying our best. I understand that to get back in-person lectures later, we have to stay distanced now. Still, attending online synchronous classes feels like a reminder of what we have lost: so close to regular classes in theory, yet in practice so far away.

The benefits of learning on your own time, by Mona Liu

While elementary and high schools are struggling to remain in-person, the University of Toronto announced that the rest of the school year will almost entirely be switched to online learning. Students hoping to return to campus in the winter were let down with this news as COVID-19 cases continue to disappointingly rise.

It’s been nearly eight months since the beginning of the pandemic and the first switch to online learning. From finishing up classes, to taking exams, to summer school, to the new school year, many of us have had more than enough experience with online learning by now.

Many classes have been listed as synchronous but can be taken asynchronously for the most part. This means that while there may be tutorials or class meetings, most of the content can be completed on your own time. Other courses are completely asynchronous, meaning that the professor will simply post lecture recordings and course content for you to review, and you’ll likely never see your professor or classmates in any other way.

Personally, I find asynchronous classes much less stressful and easier to manage than synchronous classes. The professors don’t overflow you with weekly, participation-based assignments or quizzes to try and keep you engaged.

These asynchronous classes trust that you’ll complete any assignments, readings, and lectures on your own time and be prepared for future assessments — much like what regular in-person classes would expect from you.

The only downfall to an asynchronous class is self-regulation. If you cannot set deadlines for yourself and you fall behind schedule, it’ll be extremely difficult for you to catch up when midterm or finals season comes up.

For many second-, third-, and fourth-years, staying on schedule is something they have learned over time. However, for the first-years who are coming into university without any experience of what university-style learning really entails, they may not truly understand the importance of studying on time. In high school, you just learn along the way as you complete assignments and unit tests, but in university, you only have a few chances to demonstrate your course understanding.

Thus, many upper-years have developed the ability to study on their own time and don’t enjoy being micromanaged, like some synchronous courses are doing. Asynchronous courses allow us to manage ourselves and learn the way and at the time that suits us best.

Additionally, I find that I almost like asynchronous online learning better than any other type of learning because when I am taking notes on the pre-recorded lectures, I can make the playback speed as fast as I want and pause or rewind whenever I need to write things down.

Now, I never miss anything the professor says and I can always keep up with the lecture — unlike in person, where you don’t always catch what the professor is saying. Not only can a two-hour lecture become one hour, but I also don’t miss a thing and can create detailed notes.

Of course, I would still give up the convenience of asynchronous lectures to be able to have a social life and the university experience again, but until we can understand the severity of this pandemic and take the necessary precautions to minimize the virus’ spread, life as we know it will never go back to normal.