Online school has led to a disjointed and difficult experience for first-year students
By: Madeleine Harvey, Contributor
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, first-year students anticipated beginning university. As we imagined ourselves attending campus events, studying in campus libraries and socializing with our peers in campus restaurants, the excitement of attending university mounted with each passing day. Campus life brought promises of enrichment of the mind and soul. We would be able to curate lifelong connections with our peers and our professors, discovering our passions through one-on-one interaction and investigation.
Unfortunately, with the onset of the pandemic, these dreams were squandered as we learned that in-person education would be impossible for the 2020-2021 academic year. Instead, many students now define university life as a lonesome affair with an intense workload. This has a profound impact on the mental health and morale of first-year students at McMaster University.
One of the most important aspects of campus life is socialization. With the onset of online education, students are physically isolated from one another and unable to cultivate lasting friendships. While Zoom lectures can be effective for providing some semblance of a normal classroom through face-to-face visibility, the limited class time is not enough for constructive socialization in a discussion setting. Body language and facial expressions can be extremely difficult to gauge — and this is assuming that everybody has their camera turned on. As a result, Zoom lectures provide a very impersonal experience for students, rather than connecting them with their peers.
Instead, many students now define university life as a lonesome affair with an intense workload. This has a profound impact on the mental health and morale of first-year students at McMaster University.
This lack of connection is exaggerated for first-year students. While the upper-years have already had opportunities to bond with their peers in-person, first-year students have not been afforded that same luxury. Instead, we have to navigate the world of Zoom in order to meet friends. With constant interruptions, screen freezings and awkward silences, the technological barrier can be extremely difficult when trying to befriend others.
Outside of the virtual “classroom,” many students are hesitant to interact with their cohort. Even in usually tight-knit communities, such as Arts & Science, students are finding it difficult to make friends. Some students point to the fact that they do not want to do their schoolwork on a screen and also attempt to make friends online because of ever-impending Zoom fatigue.
Outside of the virtual “classroom,” many students are hesitant to interact with their cohort. Even in usually tight-knit communities, such as Arts & Science, students are finding it difficult to make friends.
Navigating WhatsApp group chats and other non-educational forms of interaction cannot replace the value of face-to-face interaction. Many students are unable to fully convey their personality online and make connections with like-minded individuals. Sarcasm and humour that would be perceived during in-person conversation cannot be read as easily in digital message form. When one single text can be interpreted to have multiple meanings, charisma is almost non-existent. As a result, it can be extremely tedious to make friends in a group chat and students become reluctant to reach out across cyberspace to other individuals. This can exacerbate loneliness when working remotely.
Coupled with reduced social interaction, the intensified workload relative to high school is taking its toll on the first-year student body. For many students, working from home is not the ideal situation. The home can be a place of distractions and other obligations that students must fulfill during their day. Many students find themselves working upwards of 10 hours per day with little time to unwind and relax.
Those with part-time jobs have difficulty finding a balance between work, school and relaxation. While this is certainly not a first-year exclusive experience, the effects of an increased workload online are amplified as newcomers to the higher expectations of university.
For many students, working from home is not the ideal situation. The home can be a place of distractions and other obligations that students must fulfill during their day.
Last week, real human interaction occurred purely by accident when a Zoom malfunction stranded me and three classmates in a breakout room for the remainder of a lecture. Not wanting to return to the lonesome affair of Zoom university, my classmates and I carried out a conversation about how our lives had adapted to online school. This simple conversation soon drifted into other various topics and eventually, the banter turned humorous. For the first time since the beginning of school, I felt that I had made true connections with my classmates — a rarity in the face of online learning. All of us caught a whiff of what our first-year experience may have been without the pandemic.
The concerns expressed in this article only scratch the surface of the abundance of detrimental effects associated with online school. Due to these unprecedented circumstances, it can be difficult to place blame on the university for this unfortunate first-year experience. Unless first-years are willing to take the extra step to reach out to members of the community in an attempt to curate lasting friendships, loneliness is inevitable.
As for the workload, students will need to devise a strategy so they can manage their studies while still taking time for themselves during this circumstance of global calamity. Perhaps, a solution could include scheduling breaks away from screens in-between lectures, organizing Zoom study groups or venturing out into nature if the weather permits. Likewise, professors should be receptive to feedback and be willing to adjust their teaching methods to suit the needs of the online environment. Online school is far from perfect, but in order to avoid hopelessness and despair, students need to make the best of this sad imitation of the first-year experience.