Shift to online learning and lack of summer employment makes for unique start for university students

“It’s as though I’m teaching classes for the first time.”

Mount Royal University associate professor Lori Williams says instead of doing research and writing for her courses and publications, this summer was completely devoted to redesigning her in-person courses for online.

“I’ve also got to prepare a lot more materials to post online for students to access when they are able to digest it. So it’s almost like I’m a rookie again,” Williams said. 

“Not really knowing what to expect and rewriting and redesigning things in a way that is very much like creating a new course.” 

Although the majority of courses at MRU and the University of Calgary begin this week, Williams had a few classes last week along with orientation for her new students.

Willams also works as a student advisor and said online learning at the university level may be particularly difficult for those entering post-secondary.

“They’re very anxious. They didn’t know how to get into their classes. They had no idea what this is going to look like. Continuing students had a bit of an idea based on what we experienced at the end of last semester but the new students were completely in the dark,” said Williams.

She said online learning will be an adjustment for many.

“The reality is for our students, some of them are having difficulty in terms of technological access, getting time off work. Some of them are working essentially in essential services,” Williams said.

“Some of them have children who may have to be home because they can’t go in because of health concerns, because they’ve got a runny nose that day. All of these things are realities that we’re going to have to navigate around.”

A difficult transition

For David Isilebo, it’s been a difficult transition.

He’s a second year law student at the University of Calgary and had to abruptly switch to online learning last spring.

“We went online about one and a half months into our second semester and I definitely saw a decrease in my grades,” Isilebo said. “I attribute that to just the change to going online.”

“Not a big fan, to be honest. I’m one of those people that I need to remove myself completely from distractions to study. Online schooling, it’s a lot of self-determination and studying at home and, like, I have a busy home life. I live with both my parents and two siblings so the house is always active.”

Rachel Timmermans is entering into her last year at MRU and sees an upside to online learning.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have so much flexibility in my last year. It’s kind of nice that classes are online right now,” Timmermans said. “And so your schedule is a little bit more flexible because like you’re at home, so you can still do things around your classes. You don’t have to be on campus.”

Financially, things have been difficult for Timmermans, who said finding work in the summer was challenging and put her in a more vulnerable position heading into her last year.

“I had planned on working full-time, even more than full-time if I could, this summer,” she said. “And then I ended up getting laid off from both of my jobs. So I didn’t manage to find another job until about three weeks ago. I was on CERB for most of the summer. And then basically, I managed to find a job right as I was using up the last of my CERB.”

“I was surprised how hard it was to find a job this summer, and for that reason I’m planning on keeping this job throughout the rest of my school year. Because I am afraid that I won’t be able to find a replacement, even a part-time job, after I graduate.”

Timmermans said the federal government’s increase in the full-time student grant is also helping her stay in school.

Struggles and anxiety

Frank Finley, president of the University of Calgary’s students’ union, said many students are struggling financially and otherwise.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety from students, myself included. There’s fears that the quality of instruction will not be as high as it would be in person,” Finley said. “There’s just so much lost when you are not face-to-face with somebody else. Further, I think right now there’s a lot of economic anxiety for students.

“People have not been able to work and save the same way they would be able to in a normal year. When that money is used to pay tuition or rent, you now find yourself in an almost impossible position heading into an already difficult time.”

Finley said he knows students that have had to make the difficult decision to stop their university education because of a lack of funds.

He said the government needs to do more to support post-secondary institutions and its students.

“In our view, it’s totally nonsensical for the ministry of advanced education to be cutting tens of millions of dollars year after year of secondary institutions at a time when they need them the most,” Finley said. “If we’re hoping for a strong economic post-COVID recovery, students in universities play a vital role in that and I hope the government will take that to heart.”

The ministry responded in a statement, saying that universities, colleges and polytechnics received an additional $98 million to “restore learning spaces and get hundreds of Albertans back to work.”

“In addition, we provided $193 million in student loan waivers and deferrals, benefiting approximately 178,000 Albertans,” the statement reads. “We recognize the impacts of COVID-19 on students and instructors, as a response Alberta’s government has also provided over $50 million in COVID related mental health support for those struggling to cope.”

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