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My five weeks as a Rotman Commerce first-year

A first-year student reflects on the difficulty of learning lessons online
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EVELYN HAYES/THE VARSITY
EVELYN HAYES/THE VARSITY

When I walked out of my grade 12 history class in March, I thought I would be back in class in two weeks — I did not expect that to be the last time I would ever step foot in my classroom. The fully online end of high school was extremely jarring for me and did not help the anxiety I felt about my upcoming first year at U of T Rotman Commerce.

While I wasn’t sure then what to expect from a fully online business school, I must admit that the reality has often been disappointing.

Missed connections

The importance of in-person events to business education should not be understated. Rotman Commerce students would usually have a plethora of extracurricular networking meetups to attend, alongside in-class events featuring experienced businesspeople. While there are now accommodations for virtual networking events, nothing is as motivating as meeting new people or learning from accomplished speakers in person.

Until the future, when everyone is healthy and back in business, it will be difficult to persevere while everything seems out of reach and arduous. I’m not the only one who feels this as well. “Online learning has cut down a lot of my productivity and motivation as well as on-campus opportunities,” wrote Laura Lin, another first-year Rotman Commerce student.

Zoom and gloom

My first lectures ever, a time I should’ve spent acclimatizing academically, were instead spent acclimatizing to a swath of technical issues.

Connectivity issues with Blackboard Collaborate during the first lecture of RSM100  — Introduction to Management meant that the class pivoted to continue on Zoom. However, we soon discovered that our class numbers exceeded Zoom’s limit, forcing the instructor to have to juggle one lecture section split in half across the two platforms. This was eventually resolved three to four weeks in, but at that point, we had expended valuable educational time.

This sort of negative technological experience is endemic to my semester so far. In MAT133 — Calculus and Linear Algebra for Commerce, problems with automatically distributing students to breakout rooms in lecture meant that my instructor had to assign around 100 students to rooms individually. Outside of the ‘classroom,’ the group work that is essential to a good business education is exceedingly difficult when group members are spread across the world’s time zones — frequently with varying internet connection quality as well.

Prying proctor problems

Networking — and network connectivity issues — are not the only things that have changed during these unprecedented times. Given the nature of online testing, it was inevitable that something like ProctorU — an online service used to monitor students who are taking tests and exams — would have to be implemented to ensure academic integrity.

RSM100 utilizes the service, and I find it to be the worst part of online learning. Lin echoed similar sentiments, writing, “I just don’t like the whole concept of [ProctorU]: having my webcam and audio recorded gives me MAJOR exam anxiety.” She also expressed privacy concerns, given that ProctorU requires users to provide government identification.

Credit where it’s due

As a business student, missing aspects of the Rotman Commerce experience leave me wanting more. Yet, I do appreciate the attempts to retain the spirit of the program, no matter how hard it is online.

Despite many students disliking ProctorU, in my opinion, RSM100 has dealt with online learning well, making students work together for projects and bringing in guest lecturers with important wisdom. Our instructor, Professor Michael Khan, makes sure that the conversation goes two ways by emphasizing teacher-student dialogue — preventing himself from essentially becoming Khan Academy.

I pictured my first year as a Rotman Commerce student differently, to say the least. My expectations included sitting in grand lecture halls, building my network face to face, and being prepared to study late into the night at Robarts Library. Months into the pandemic, classes are screen-to-screen and networking is harder than ever — but at least my late-night studies are in a comfier environment.