Distanced learning: not all bad?

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Fourth-year Arts student parses pros and cons of distanced learning

It will shock absolutely no one (I hope) that the University of Regina has returned to in-person classes as of August 30, 2021. When I spoke to other students this summer – which was considerably more than last year – I heard nothing but gloomy reports of how miserable the past year had been for them, having been shut inside. I made sure to smile, nod, and empathize for the most part…but the truth is, I did not think that distance learning was all that bad.

There were downsides to it, of course, like the actual people-dying-from-the-pandemic aspect. As many clinical reports showed, quarantine and lockdown conditions caused severe mental health deterioration in many people, particularly students.[1] I am not in any way trying to dispute that – for many people, quality of life diminished severely – or somehow say that the pandemic was a good thing. I did, however, notice many benefits of taking my classes from home.

In addition, I would like to acknowledge the privileges I have that made this a good experience: I am a younger student who lives away from home but have supportive parents who are able to contribute to my education. I live alone and have my own study and workspace in my apartment – though it is just a corner in my basement suite under one of the few windows. Conditions are obviously less ideal for students who lost full- or part-time jobs they needed to pay for…well, everything…and for students who are unable to work comfortably from home because of roommates, siblings, or parents. I do think, however, that many of these aspects of distanced learning can benefit anyone.

With that having been disclaimed, here are some benefits I noticed from a year of distanced learning: first, not having to commute. Housing near the university fills up extremely fast and is not always in the best condition. Regina is also a city designed for cars, and our public transit system is flawed and underfunded.[2] More importantly, owning a car isn’t financially feasible for everyone, and neither are university parking passes. I personally dislike driving and opt for our “included with tuition” U-Pass, which means a half an hour commute to and from the university. This is still not a long commute, as citizens of Regina reports over hour-long commutes by public transit if transit comes to their area at all. Staying home eliminates a lot of wasted time that can be spent more wisely.

This isn’t to say that productivity needs to be one’s biggest focus, especially during the pandemic. Although, speaking as a full-time student who has been working at least two jobs year-round to get by, time is of the essence. Even if that extra hour a day isn’t spent working on an essay, reading, or studying, it is still invaluable time to a student. An extra hour for a university student means more sleep, more time to prepare a nutritious meal; more time to unwind with a TV show or movie, or more time catch up with a friend, even if virtually.

Conversely, remote learning for me as an introvert meant not having to participate in extraneous socialization. I know, can I sound any more privileged? But personally, I find being around people, particularly in large groups, very draining if I have to do it for a long period of time. Eventually, this can lead to further burn out of the social kind, in addition to the mental burn out of school. This often leads to social withdrawal, which means not seeing friends or family in quantities that are enriching or beneficial for me (or them.) Instead, the pandemic led me to reach out to my friends and family more often, rekindle relationships I had let go due to lack of time or exhaustion, and talk to people more in my classes.

I made more friends over Zoom this year than I made in the previous two years of in-person school. I think these new connections were more easily forged because my social battery was functioning at much higher levels and because the circumstances forced us to be. If we didn’t make intentional efforts to connect with our cohorts, we wouldn’t connect with anyone at all. When I was working as a Teachers Assistant at the Writing Centre over Zoom last year, if there were no appointments in the time slots while we were switching shifts, we would often all stay on the call to chat about classes and current projects. I also had classmates take an email that was only meant to have a submission of feedback and extend them into full conversations instead. Being more isolated somehow helped bring us together by leading us to reach out to people we might not have – because in a normal classroom setting, when your session is over, you just pack your bags and go.

One benefit of distance learning for me that may be a pitfall for others is that, as an English honours major, most of my schoolwork is reading hefty novels, and most of my classes are just discussing those hefty novels. The aforementioned extra hour in a day meant more time to do my syllabus readings, and, as a result, I was able to come to class more prepared. With more time to prepare and dedicate to my studies, my grades improved.

I do acknowledge, though, that it is certainly a different feeling to discuss a book over Zoom, but it’s not impossible. Online learning models don’t work as well for students in the sciences or fine arts who often require a hands-on approach. A friend of mine in Engineering often remarked that his professors weren’t as available for questions or to explain concepts as they might have been in-person.

The downsides to distanced learning are obviously more apparent. For those students who thrive on social activities and chatting with their peers, learn best by auditory or hands-on learning, or have learning environments that aren’t conducive to learning, online learning is not a viable solution for education indefinitely. However, it does expose many gaps in our education system that can be improved upon, either by making more classes, or aspects of classes, online – or simply addressing the root problem.

If anything, the pandemic proved a need for a better work-life and school-life balance, more leniency, empathy, and understanding from professors for students who have a tough enough time when it’s not a pandemic, affordable housing solutions for all – not just students, and a better system of public transit. Changes can be made to our modes of delivery to make them more hybrid. Just one example being that professors could now provide online copies of lectures for when students are sick or unable to make it into class – and, in addition, this would make classes more accessible for those who are hard of hearing or have auditory processing issues and struggle in a classroom setting. The bottom line is that we can learn from some of these positive aspects of distanced learning, and that perhaps all the struggles we faced in the last two years weren’t for nothing. Good can come from the flaws being exposed in our systems, particularly our educational systems – if we choose to address them.

[1] See this study from Journal of Medical Internet Research for more: https://www.jmir.org/2020/6/e20185/

[2] For some more information on this, please see a piece from Issue 2 by Liam O’Connor on the issue: https://www.carillonregina.com/plenty-of-work-to-be-done-to-improve-regina-transit/


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