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The frustrations of an online KPE education

Here’s what it’s like to be a kinesiology student today
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I moved to Toronto in September 2020 amid the pandemic, determined not to let online learning deny me my first-year experience. As I crossed from Victoria College to Robarts Library, I remembered how vibrant the campus felt during my campus tour in 2019. That memory felt so distant. This was not the first year I had envisioned. 

Finally, this past fall, as a second-year student, I left my first in-person class and passed hundreds of students who crowded the sidewalks of St. George Street. But as I finished my first day of in-person classes, my roommate was closing her computer after starting her third semester of exclusively online learning.

My roommate is a U of T kinesiology student, taking courses that are distinct from the ones offered by the Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS) to which I belong. The small and close-knit Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) operates independently, and on June 2, 2021 — as vaccination uptake increased and COVID-19 case counts decreased — it announced that first- and second-year KPE courses would remain online in the fall of 2021. Just under three weeks after my roommate received this disappointing news, I opened an email from the Dean of FAS, Melanie Woodin, assuring students that, following a two-week transitional period, we would begin in-person learning in the fall.

This past December, when the FAS put in-person learning on hiatus until February due to the Omicron variant, the KPE decided to keep all first- and second-year courses online for the remainder of the 2021–2022 academic year. Second-year KPE students, like my roommate, will now be halfway toward earning a degree without ever having stepped inside a classroom. 

Following the faculty’s announcement in December, second-year KPE student Megan Christoforidis started a petition titled “Implement In-Person Learning for First and Second Year Students.” This petition now stands at over 300 signatures and lists comments such as: “My daughter is struggling online… It’s emotionally draining and not good for their mental health,” and “I’ve paid over 16K for over two years, plus over 20K for rent for my kid to sit in front of a computer and not attend his first in-person class.” 

The irony of the KPE’s approach is that this undergraduate program specializes in hands-on learning about physiology, anatomy, and physical education. How does a student receive an adequate kinesiology education online?

Online learning impacts the most crucial components of all students’ development. But especially in the kinesiology program, online instruction diminishes course content — kinesiology, by nature, cannot be taught virtually. 

Trust and community are also vital to the kinesiology program. Traditionally, students work extensively with one another, conducting group analyses of their own physical movement. The current mode of course delivery disincentivizes students to visit campus, establish a network of friends, and create a support system. The consequence of online learning is a cohort of students who feel isolated.  

Throughout 2020 and 2021, online higher education was implemented nationwide to protect university communities against COVID-19. Now, while other programs return to in-person learning, the transition to online learning feels permanent for KPE students, even for those who have gotten two or three doses of the vaccine. The KPE charges the same tuition and demands the same degree of participation as it did in previous years, but is not offering the quality of education that it did pre-COVID-19.

The missing experience 

A distinctive part of the kinesiology program is its practicals. Lower-year students attend these practicals online now, which even in the best of scenarios, is incomparable to a classroom setting. Second-year KPE student Reem Ibrahim is one of the many students in her program entering a fourth semester of classes online, unable to attend in-person practicals. 

“In reality, when you do labs in person, you are seeing the cadaver and the muscle cells under a microscope. You’re seeing all that in real life and are able to get a better grasp at what you’re looking at and what you’re studying,” Ibrahim told The Varsity

Ibrahim is not alone in lamenting KPE’s decision to deliver labs online. Another second-year student, Karina Di Biase, expresses the loss of hands-on experience that kinesiology students desire in order to prepare for medical or graduate studies.

“A cadaver lab would be important for every aspect, whether you [go] to medical school or physio, because you get that hands-on component of seeing the muscles and distinguishing between different types of fibres and all of those things. So, it’d be really good and important for us to learn and visualise and see for ourselves rather than in pictures, which we can’t really distinguish,” said Di Biase. The cadaver lab is among the most memorable classroom experiences for kinesiology students.

Another important tool for kinesiology students are athletic facilities, which are also as valuable as course textbooks. In a March 2020 article in Concordia News, physiologist Patrice Desaulniers wrote that studying kinesiology requires on-site interaction. “You need to have someone next to you showing you how to do it and correcting you.” Normally, the U of T Athletic Centre is the hub for KPE students, but throughout its closure, they have stood in front of a camera exercising from home and streaming on Zoom.

Loss of community 

Kinesiology students at U of T are also losing out on the program’s outdoor projects. The KPE promotes community building even before students begin four years of studies together; in previous years, at the end of August, incoming first-year kinesiology students participated in an outdoor learning program together. According to the faculty’s website, “The outdoor projects form an important and unique component of the curriculum. The objectives of these courses are to provide students with a sequence of learning experiences related to outdoor activity, which emphasises skill-development, awareness of the environment, and leadership in an outdoor setting.” Kinesiology students haven’t been able to access this programming since August 2019, and no meaningful substitute has been offered yet. 

The emphasis on community building within the kinesiology program is incredibly attractive at a university as large as U of T. For Fiona Huang, the opportunity to meet her peers was an essential factor in her decision to study kinesiology. Huang, now in her fourth year, grew up in the small town of Hay River in the Northwest Territories, which has a population of 3,500. The UTSG student population is over 18 times as large. 

The prospect of sitting in a class of 1,000 students was far more daunting to Huang than enrolling in a program through which she could establish real connections. She had been considering a life sciences program, but as she told The Varsity, “I eventually settled on [kinesiology] because I come from a small town, like my graduating class was 30 people.” The program still feels big to her, but, as she puts it, “it’s only 250 people and is a very close-knit community.”

Now in her last semester of school, Huang is happy she chose kinesiology and credits her experience at U of T for her current status as a medical school applicant. But Huang’s experience at KPE is drastically different from kinesiology students in lower years, who, having never set foot on campus, do not identify with the “close-knit community” that she describes.  

Huang is among the cohort of upper-year kinesiology students who benefitted from pre-pandemic education and also had a monopoly on in-person learning within their faculty this past fall. “In-person learning is very, very valuable,” Huang said. “You don’t even notice how much more you can learn and absorb in a class when you’re in person rather than on your computer screen… I am definitely grateful for the experience of in-person [classes] last semester.”

An unsatisfactory compromise

KPE is one of several similar programs across Canada that are struggling to teach human kinetics in an online setting. However, both Concordia University and the University of Guelph have released statements emphasizing that they are able to deliver high-quality learning to kinesiology students from a distance. At the very onset of the pandemic in 2020, Concordia professors took action in creating specialized at-home programs to “compensate for what was lacking,” as Associate Professor Alain Leroux put it. 

Also in 2020, the University of Guelph-Humber released a statement titled “How the Kinesiology program is bringing hands-on learning home.” The statement details how, at Guelph-Humber, “the Kinesiology program co-ordinated the delivery of an assessment kit called a KinKit — featuring a heart-rate monitor, stethoscope and skinfold caliper — to all the students taking the course.” The equipment included in the assessment kit is similar to what the students would have otherwise found in a classroom. 

Clearly, kinesiology programs at other universities are taking action, raising questions about whether the reputation of U of T’s kinesiology program may suffer compared to institutions where the administration demonstrates a greater investment in students’ education. 

Of course, the success of online kinesiology instruction is also dependent on a prepared and flexible professor and a self-directed and motivated student. But instructing kinesiology from home remains a challenge for professors, who are used to demonstrating concepts in a classroom setting. In an interview with The Varsity, KPE Professor Joyce Chen shared her experience with delivering an online course in motor acquisition. 

“I was able to pivot [the lab] component,” Chen said. “I ended up devising labs around the speed cup stacking activity.” She asked students to buy plastic cups — the inexpensive type you might find at Walmart or Dollarama. She then used the activity to illustrate different motor learning concepts. All the students were able to participate in the activity alone, or with the help of someone they lived with, who could time them. 

“Based on student feedback, I think most found it helpful,” Chen told The Varsity, adding that some students even became competitive with each other or those they lived with. “I can’t wait to do this activity in person — I think it will be a lot of fun when everyone can practice together and cheer each other on.”

Chen told The Varsity that teaching the course online was challenging at first, but she was able to adapt. “That said, it still was not a rewarding experience,” she said. “I couldn’t see nor hear students, so [I] had no idea what their responses were.” Before the pandemic, when she ran classes in person, she could notice when students dozed off, chatted with each other, or stared at her in confusion. “These were cues that enabled me to respond,” she explained. “With online learning, this is not possible at all. I think it’s frustrating for both students and instructors.”

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote, “The Faculty of Kinesiology, in an effort to balance the learning needs of students with the need to minimize the spread of COVID-19, has adopted a gradual approach to returning to campus, with priority given to academic and co-curricular student activities that can be safely delivered to small and mid-sized groups.”

The spokesperson further detailed that students in lower years tend to have larger class sizes, which poses a barrier against in-person learning during the pandemic. “Although it was our hope that all courses would be in person for the Winter 2022 term, the rise of the Omicron variant of concern upended the original plan for a full return to campus in January,” they added.

“The Faculty is intentionally providing a range of in-person and online elective course options this term, and is also offering on-campus, small group, co-curricular opportunities through our KINections program. We remain committed to keeping our community safe and look forward to providing an expanded in-person experience as soon as we are safely able to do so.” 

A light at the end of the tunnel

U of T’s kinesiology students pay thousands of dollars in tuition and fees, which go toward campus services, facilities, and an excellent education at the highest ranked university in Canada. Given the capricious changes in facility access and course delivery announcements, kinesiology students are not getting their money’s worth. Unlike in a humanities program, where students are prepared for careers through the development of soft skills, not having an in-person education in kinesiology is a veritable obstacle against practice with the human body and the study of physical movement. Entering the field of physiotherapy without first practising in a classroom setting is not plausible. 

The pandemic has been going on for nearly two years now, and students are speculating what the future of education will look like. Will virtual courses remain a permanent option? Or do the disadvantages of online learning suggest that it will only be delivered when necessary? Ideally, like so many other students this past fall, kinesiology students will have the opportunity to choose how they want to learn. 

Huang offered a piece of advice to lower-year kinesiology students. “Honestly, getting to where you are now — going through the pandemic and all this uncertainty — is a gigantic feat, and you should not disregard anything that you’ve done this far,” she said. She remains hopeful that kinesiology students and faculty will maintain their community spirit and continue to foster an inclusive and equitable environment, despite any future obstacles they encounter. Huang said, “I’m again so sorry for the lack of in-person experience, but I do think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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