The UTSC student body represents a diverse demographic, with nearly 2,000 international students spanning from 81 different countries. With a diverse population comes a wide range of learning experiences, all uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We decided to conduct a research project this past summer to examine the educational experiences of marginalized students and explore how UTSC’s domestic and international students have viewed their education during the pandemic. Specifically, the research focused on how pandemic policies and educational practices have impacted the learning experience and, by extension, the well-being of students.
We organized a feedback event with 20 participants and we ensured the space was reflective and safe for folks to share. During the feedback event, students spoke in breakout rooms about the key issues that they faced with virtual learning. The goal was to involve both domestic and international students, and this was possible through multiple student groups promoting the feedback event on various social media platforms.
Students spoke about how the credit/no credit (CR/NCR) UTSC policy, which can currently be applied only to elective courses and courses that are breadth requirements, would be useful if it allowed individuals to apply it to any course that they were taking without limiting the number of courses that it could be used for. Students also expressed how the CR/NCR option would be helpful in situations when it is hard to know if a program requirement course would be something they are interested in based on a short description on the UTSC calendar.
Many students spoke about issues with virtual exams, including distractions, students asking questions on Bb Collaborate during exam time, and the timing of their exams. We found that international students in particular would have preferred that the university — for the sake of their sleep schedule and health — accommodated them so that they could write their exams during the day instead of at night.
Students also expressed during the breakout sessions that assignment submissions were tough, as they felt they were not receiving responses from professors and teaching assistants about the questions they had on assignments. Furthermore, one student shared how during the pandemic, their professor implemented a 12.5 per cent late penalty for one day. These types of penalties are counterproductive and can add more stress to students.
It is also important to consider the impact online education has had on student mental health. Many students we had discussions with said that their mental health suffered due to the pandemic, which in turn impacted their academic performance and student life. We found that this was partly due to the inability to separate home and work life, and some students felt as though the replacement of multiple-choice exams with essay questions or assignments added to their workload and created additional academic pressure.
After taking notes in each of the breakout rooms, we compiled a list of reforms that were reviewed.
These reforms include:
- Ensuring access to mental health services beyond online apps and resources
- Ensuring professors respond to students in a timely manner and have clear guidelines on deadlines, late penalties, et cetera
- Revising the CR/NCR policy
- Ensuring international students have access to health services previously provided by UTSC, which is especially pertinent for essential mental health services that are unavailable in other countries
- Ensuring accessibility and flexibility with deadlines
- Removing synchronous exams for international students
- Offering online resources and activities during hours that international students can access
The next step we took was to communicate these findings and recommended reforms to larger University of Toronto networks. We wrote letters and shared with relevant stakeholders what should be changed this fall term, as many students at UTSC are still taking courses virtually. Some of the stakeholders we contacted included Scarborough Campus Students’ Union Vice-President Academics & University Affairs Rimsha Rahman, UTSC Vice-Principal Academic & Dean William Gough, and the department of human geography’s Department Chair Thembela Kepe on behalf of the Geography and City Studies Student Association.
Building a healthy community at UTSC is a priority, especially to current students who have developed an affinity for online learning. Understanding the perspectives of various students from diverse community backgrounds gives us a critical and intersectional lens we can use to look at online learning, including its merits in expanding accessibility. Students’ shared experiences can help create equitable policies to implement into learning post-COVID-19 in a university setting.
Anika Munir is a third-year public policy, city studies, and public law student at UTSC. She is the Director of Human Geography on the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union and the co-president of the Geography and City Studies Student Association (GCSA).
Rajpreet Sidhu is a recent graduate of the international development studies co-op and human geography program at UTSC and is currently working at the national office of Parks Canada in the visitor use management team.
Aarushi Taneja is a fourth-year health sciences and human geography student at U of T and the vice-president of communications of the GCSA.