This blog has its roots in a third year University of Toronto Scarborough undergraduate course ‘Geographies of Education.’ UTSC is located close to some of Toronto’s lowest income/most racialized neighborhoods. The authors—undergraduate students, a postdoctoral fellow, and a professor—write collectively to briefly share some thoughts on the shift to remote learning from March 2020 in response to the COVID epidemic. At its heart are three stories, which are edited versions of an ‘auto-ethnography’ course assignment that asked students to interpret their own experiences with online learning through the lens of the course readings. Although, to make the blog more readable, we decided to take out much of the theory, some traces are apparent: Bourdieu’s attention to how parents have different amounts of ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ capital; Freire’s insistence on a ‘problem posing’ rather than a top-down ‘banking’ pedagogy; the centrality of racism in structuring which students drop out and are streamed into ‘applied’ paths (and its intersections with gender and class); Canada’s inequitable education system including the violent history of residential schools; and EdTech’s pursuit of profit for decades through online education. Pseudonyms are used in the case of the three case studies, and these are followed by a brief commentary.
Story 1: Sarah
No one prepared students for the learning obstacles that would await them at the start of the pandemic. Educational institutions make the assumption that all students have equal access to the internet, are technologically competent, and have access to contemporary technology (apps and devices). For me, online learning is challenging because of my living situation, and I cannot focus fully. To give you a better idea of our situation, we are a large family living in a two-bedroom apartment, three of whom attend online school, one of whom is still in high school, and the other two of whom are at university. Amongst the students, we had to share the living room and the kitchen, and oftentimes the internet connection would be slow, or crash suddenly. For example, when it came to participating in class, I had to ask my sibling to be quiet, and if I had to do a presentation, I would go to my neighbor’s apartment because there were fewer distractions. Also, when you live with a large family, it is difficult to focus because family members will ask you questions or ask you to do something for them in the middle of your lectures. For example, numerous times, my mother would ask me to make her tea or do some sort of cleaning in the house. In her defense, all she sees is that I am at home, sitting and listening to my professor. In her mind, it’s like you can do that while helping around the house. However, that affects my learning because I’m just listening to the professor without actually engaging with the materials. In comparison to in-person learning, where I physically leave the house and go to the campus, I don’t have to worry about families walking into a lecture hall asking me questions. At the same time, one benefit of online learning was saving the 4-hours it takes me to commute to and from campus.
Online learning took a toll on me mentally. I found it very difficult to just sit in front of a screen for a long period of time, listening to my professors without being able to interact with my peers. When you are mentally exhausted and feeling disconnected from your classmates and professor, it is even harder to engage with the learning material. For example, when we are on campus, you will sit next to your classmates, and you can share notes with them or when we have a break, you can go up to the professor and have a conversation with them. However, online learning doesn’t provide the same opportunities to make friends and interact with one another. The extended screen time created terrible fatigue, and I was at a point where I didn’t want to attend lectures. Some days, I won’t leave my bed; I’ll just log onto Zoom and attend my class without paying attention to what the professor is saying. On those days, either I am half asleep while attending lectures or I am mentally absent. During that period, I only attended lectures, so I didn’t receive a zero on my participation grade, and I spent 75 percent of the time in my pajamas in bed attending class. In terms of turning my camera on, I felt uncomfortable because I have seen videos where students take screenshots of their classmates and post them online. Moreover, students record the lectures and post them online, and that was a key reason why I didn’t turn on my camera. I felt like my privacy could be violated.
During online learning, the professor began to add additional assignments and timed tests, which became difficult since for the timed quizzes, you only have a limited amount of time to do the task, and frequently, my internet connection was poor or non-existent during the allotted time. For example, there was a time when I needed to take a quiz and my internet was completely down, so I walked to my neighbor’s place to finish the quiz. The quiz was over by the time I had logged in my information, and I had written to the professor to explain my predicament, but there was no understanding whatsoever. I received a score of 0 on the quiz.
Story 2: Victoria X
When, in March 2020, all UTSC courses were transferred online, I felt much safer staying in my apartment and was happy about no longer having to commute to campus. However, by the summer semester I felt overwhelmed when all classes started completely online. Time passed so quickly—I stayed at home all day and all night without seeing or communicating with real people.
During pandemic times, courses were offered online either synchronously or asynchronously. Although having multiple formats sounds like an excellent solution and offers more flexibility, it did not work well for me. Asynchronous delivery is frustrating because I find that I actually need more time to watch the lecture compared to an in-person class. At home, I am easily disrupted, and sometimes I pause the lecture several times or end up watching it another day. In this case, I missed the aspects of in-person classes in which I was surrounded by classmates that enabled me to stay focused, and the atmosphere of sitting in the lecture hall helped me to study more effectively. The interactions between students and professors also ensured a better quality of in-person lectures. For synchronous lectures, though instructors encourage students to turn on their webcams, most of the students prefer not to show their face for different reasons – messy background due to limited living conditions, uncomfortable to show their faces in front of the camera, unstable internet connections with video on, etc. With only a handful of people with cameras on, plus the recording of sessions, I also do not feel comfortable keeping my camera on which discourages communications with professors and discussions with classmates.
When the camera is on, the expectation is that ‘live’ classes have a pristine background and a quiet place to sit. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was living with one roommate. Even though we had two separate rooms with enough space and plenty of distance between us, we still needed to inform each other about the time when we had classes, tutorials, and exams so that we would not disturb each other.
A large portion of international students choose to return to their home countries where they can spend more time with their families. Some international students do not consider it worthwhile to pay rent just to live in a dormitory without going to campus. Although I am a student from China, I chose to stay in Toronto because of the different time zones and access to resources. By staying in Toronto, I do not have to watch lectures or take exams at midnight. Also, I am able to access certain websites that are blocked in China.
Staying at home all day on one’s own leads to a lack of motivation from time to time. Sometimes I struggled with my time management, for example, missing deadlines because of not checking Quercus for one specific day. Previously I set up a detailed calendar with every event in case I missed any appointments or assignments. Before campus was closed, I preferred to go to campus to study or meet friends; however, I feel a lack of motivation staying at home alone for long, plus leaving things unfinished makes me suffer from distress and makes it harder for me to start a new task. Also, with fewer calendar commitments and no need to show up to places at specific times, my sleeping schedule was indirectly disturbed. In addition, long-time lockdown periods cause anxiety when I communicate with people online. Conversations through the barrier of a screen are less engaging and harder to express emotions. As an international student, I had to manage all this mental pressure by myself because I do not have my family around. The pressure from job-seeking and the approaching graduation date had me struggling for some time and it was aggravated by the pandemic.
Story 3: Bianca Malik
At the onset of the pandemic, I faced the abrupt transition to online learning while being asked to leave residence housing. For the first two days of online learning, I was stuck with my old HP laptop that lagged and had poor Wi-Fi services, as everybody living in residence was now connected to the network at once. I had to be patient with lagging lecture videos, questions taking longer to load and poor screen and audio quality. Fortunately, I performed well although I could have done better if I had better devices and internet quality. I had to study extra hard, use free online learning websites and implement several study strategies to do well. I had also just moved to Canada from the Caribbean and did not have friends or family who could explain concepts or share study material with me. Other students even got help with their online assessments.
I hope to one day be a medical doctor. In my home country, there were no hospital volunteer programs or many community service opportunities. This, however, is a requirement for medical schools in Canada. Since everything was on lockdown, the walk-in clinics refused to do my blood work to volunteer at a hospital. This hindered me from gaining experience pertinent to my future goals.
With online schooling, lecture recordings were posted with no student-teacher interaction. I felt like I was being treated like a receptacle to retain information with no concern for my mental health. Quizzes and exams were ridiculously timed, and I had to have the answers at my fingertips. I spent hours repeatedly reading information and watching lectures to retain information just until the exam was over. I could not genuinely enjoy my courses because of the pressure I felt to retain and regurgitate information to do well. However, in the fall of 2021 after tremendous backlash for the lack of student- teacher interaction, what Paulo Freire called ‘problem posing’ teaching was implemented in tutorials to partially replace the top-down ‘banking’ model. This was poorly implemented, and I was battling with other students to be heard as tens of students were talking simultaneously because marks were awarded for participation despite the large class sizes. There was no structure to give each student a chance to participate despite the large class sizes. I was anxious in every tutorial hoping I was heard.
During online learning students were forced to pay for facilities that were shut down, like the PanAm center. The option to opt out of miscellaneous fees was taken away from students. Platforms like Pearson, McMillan and Tophat were used to supplement course material or administer quizzes which were graded for participation. Apart from paying tuition, in several courses, I had to purchase platforms because I did not want to risk 5% or 10% of my grade being shifted to my exam when I could just get them for participation. Also, EdTech companies made it mandatory to upload all information online. This made me anxious every time I had to communicate or work on a project online with individuals from other countries. I felt like my personal and school data were being collected and analyzed, and I was being watched.
I stayed in Canada for online school because back home the Wi-Fi is terrible. I was also scared that the university would transition back to in person learning and I would not be able to find a place in Canada to rent. However, this did not entirely solve the Wi-Fi issue for me. Indeed, my Wi-Fi crashed just before one of my final exams. However, my professor was very understanding, and I took the final exam after my Wi-Fi returned, though I was a wreck. With online learning, there were little to no student-teacher relationships formed. It was difficult getting a spot to visit office hours as spots were filled fast. I was unable to form close relationships with professors and get to know more about and participate in their research. This was disadvantageous for me because research is pertinent to be accepted into medical school.
With all these challenges of online learning, students including myself, found ways of rebelling against an unfair system that failed to take students into account but rather acted like a selfish business. I found myself emailing professors and teachers asking for extensions just so I could have more time to perfect my work. Overall, online schooling had pros and cons, but the cons outweighed the pros. Online schooling took a remarkable toll on my mental health which eventually affected my physical health.
In Ontario, public discourse with respect to online education has been concentrated in the K-12 sector, which confronted the longest school closures in Canada. News coverage chronicled the journey of students since the first 2020 closure to present day including its impact on those already underserved and marginalized in the system: students with disabilities unable to access the online platform; racialized students disproportionately enrolled online; a demand for computers that exceeded supply; rural and remote communities unable to connect to their schools; and spikes in absences, especially for students who struggled in-person. The general stress of the pandemic coupled with acute pressure on lower-income households provoked heated debates about mental health and the interdependence of education, healthcare, and the economy.
Despite the importance of postsecondary education and documented inequities in access, the realities of this demographic of students learning primarily online were underrepresented in news media. The power of stories featured in this collection is realized in students’ response to the barriers they name: market driven education policy, an underfunded and inaccessible postsecondary sector, EdTech opportunism and growing surveillance, facilitated by administration, faculty and staff. Students’ insights give us a glimpse into the diversity of struggles they encountered learning online at UTSC and highlight an intersection of barriers similar to those confronted by K-12 students. Unlike prescriptions to work in a quiet, private space, many students were living in families with multiple people learning and working from home. In addition to disruptions from the household, students confronted technological issues, zoom fatigue, economic insecurity, and social isolation. The unique barriers of international students who experience compounded pressures heightened during a rapidly changing context are also represented in this collection.
The strength of students’ contributions lies in the breadth of detail, which capture the banality of inequality: knocking on a neighbour’s door to steal peace, turning attention away from class to meet competing obligations, the severe stress of heightened surveillance, coordinating time zones and weighing decisions between isolation and access. These inequalities are not isolated and preceded COVID-related shifts to online learning, driven by the growing power and influence of EdTech in education despite evidence of its failing promise. A decade of MOOCs and microcredits did not revolutionize access in postsecondary institutions nor did the expansion of online education across K-12 schools in North America, which struggled to retain students. Prior to the pandemic in Ontario the Doug Ford government announced two credits of e-learning as a graduating requirement for secondary school students. Even with an opt-out clause, this policy is projected by the Ministry to increase demand by 30%. Despite widespread disapproval, they are proceeding with a plan to centralize e-learning, remove control over its administration from school boards, and market it abroad. We must continue to monitor and respond to these concerning trends, particularly in the public education sector.