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The Reality of University life During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The 2020-2021 academic year has been passing with a whole new set of challenges, as universities and students learn to navigate in a world with COVID-19. The shift to virtual learning has forced schools to drastically change their teaching methods and priorities. Without a campus experience and on-campus facilities, students question the justification of paying the same kind of tuition as they struggle to meet learning goals from various home environments. Malaika Lindsay explores how student populations in the post-secondary setting have been impacted by this shift to virtual learning methods.

Students Wish For Change

Universities and colleges announced a move to online classes starting Fall 2020 as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. Announcements were made by universities as the summer rolled around with little improvement in the seriousness of this pandemic. Universities who went this route include the University of British Columbia, University of Ottawa, Carleton University, McGill University among others. This news had sparked a conversation between incoming first-year freshmen about whether or not the schools should reduce tuition, due to the lack of campus experience, facilities and full access to certain regular resources. There has also been hesitation among certain students about whether they should defer until fall 2021 or stay home instead of choosing to live at the university residence.

Image: University of Ottawa, Canada Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“We have lobbied the university administration extensively for reduced tuition, but they have chosen to not reduce tuition while assuring students they will provide additional financial support. The university has provided additional emergency funding and has cut certain fees, around athletics and the bus pass. However, students remain disappointed at the high cost of tuition for an online semester.” Carleton University’s Student Association President, Kathleen Weary. Despite wanting to preserve students’ on-campus experience, these institutions are adhering to public health guidelines to ensure everyone’s health and safety above anything else.

Image: Old Chancellor Day Hall, Faculty of Law, McGill University Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How universities and colleges depend on online education

In the face of this disappointing outcome, academic establishments across Canada have shown progressive methods to make students’ education the most comfortable and easily accessible online – this has increased the integration of Zoom, MS Teams and Brightspace in education instruction.

These online platforms allow students to complete homework and other tasks, exams and perform activities with other students and professors, simulation group participation similar to what they would have done on campus. The shift to an online mode of lecture delivery has not stopped schools from offering the same activities and programs either. Recruitment, registration and participation in clubs, contacting mental health counsellors and more still remain. Business schools, such as Telfer School of Management, School of Sprott and McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management are also still successfully managing to offer their annual and usual networking events online.

This allows their students the continued opportunity to network with different
companies and firms even with COVID-19. Brittany Christian, a student at the University of
Arkansas, Little Rock stated that when the pandemic first started, it was hard to see her
professors every day because of screen time. She found the educational experience different than being in the classroom, “I have classes where I don’t have to see the professor since they are basic classes. It’s very much fine not to have a professor in this instance,” she said. However,
with this change, it is worth the current tuition price.

Online Exam Invigilation Opens Doors to Digital Surveillance

Moving to an online system of instruction and examination included more than just using virtual lectures and recordings. Early in the Fall semester, students became aware that the University of Ottawa was using a surveillance tool called Responds. In a statement from the University of Ottawa Student’s Union on Sept 19, 2020 they said, “This summer, without consulting the students, the University of Ottawa decided to implement the Respondus Monitor and Lockdown Proctoring software.” According to the Respondus website, Respondus Monitor is able to use the webcam on a student’s computer to analyze the live video stream and track cheating during “non-proctored exams.”

The website also mentions an “auto-launch” feature, whereby, simply opening the browser can allow the software to begin function without requiring the student’s permission each time, as long as the student is on the exam website. The Student Union’s statement voiced their concerns over the use of such measures without consultation with student representatives. They also summarized actions taken by the union thus far, including a statement made on July 2, 2020 and an open letter to the university on July 15, 2020.

Image: University of Ottawa, Fateux Hall Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Vermont’s blog also explains that Responds records data from the student’s microphones and webcams and employs artificial intelligence to determine if the student has cheated. The blog article authored by Dianna Murray-Close also outlines ethical and logistical concerns of such extreme measures of student surveillance. An obvious issue raised on the article addressed the reality that students are often giving their online exams in common spaces shared with family, roommates or even a public area with people passing by. Furthermore, those students who are not open to allow the recoding of audio and video from within their homes or personal spaces will now be forced to choose between giving in to the system or sacrificing their privacy.

In the end, the University of Ottawa modified policies to allow students to be able to refuse the use of software like Respondus. In such instances, they will be offered alternative ways of being assessed for those courses.

Housing Updates and Regulations

Regarding housing, the University of Ottawa has had its students move into their residence in the past week. Procedures have been incorporated for the safety of students and faculty on campus by following public health guidelines. Mandatory masks for indoor spaces, continued social distancing, training before the move-in and restrictions on outside-visitors permitted in housing, are examples of policies being employed to promote safety.

Published on the University of Ottawa Housing Information page, all common rooms and study rooms are closed with very few exceptions, such as the common kitchens in 90U and Henderson building. If one roommate shows continued COVID-19 symptoms then all roommates must self-isolate together. According to the Carleton University Housing Information page, they are following similar guidelines. The move-in took place over a period of six days instead of the usual one-weekend affair. Not to mention that residence capacity has been reduced making each student moving in this fall staying in single-occupancy regardless if they had already chosen this option. Carleton University has not withheld resident-support thus including counsellors, managers and etc ensuring a safe and respectful housing environment. Algonquin College has also sent out many emails to their students and staff, including a message from Dr. Vera Etches, Medical Officer of Health. In brief, there’s an explanation of procedures to maintain safety to keep community transmission low in Ottawa. Continuous exercise, maintenance of proper hygiene and face coverings, isolation and social distancing are all recommended. The school has also stated in one of the emails sent to Algonquin students, that only specific students and critical employees will be permitted back on campus when necessary to perform certain learning and teaching activities. A campus access guide has also been distributed to those going there in-person, which includes guidelines and precautions to guarantee a safe return in the fall. Housing-wise, Algonquin has taken similar measures as the rest. They have offered enhanced cleaning on shared rooms, support for isolated students, physical distancing requirements in common rooms and changes to deadlines. Universities and colleges have shown continuous effort and strong adaptation skills during the current pandemic. Whether or not on-campus classes and activities can resume in the Winter 2021 semester is yet to be determined.

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