Alyson Allen

Cannon Layout

When it was announced that in-person learning was to resume in Fall 2021, I was not overjoyed. While we wait for the final decision to be made, I can’t help but think about my experiences with both in-person and online learning.

In-person lectures were never quite my thing. Unfortunately for me, my brain mistakes any professor’s important lessons as the ideal white noise machine for a nap. When fueled by an abundance of cold brew coffee, my brain can take barely legible notes for a maximum of ten minutes before turning my notebook, or scrap of paper I found at the bottom of my bag, into the perfect canvas for doodles, grocery lists, and anything else that comes to mind. Quite honestly, these two modes for my brain only applied if I even bothered attending a lecture. Tutorials in-person were a different type of struggle. Half the time, these tutorials were the only time I could muster enough brainpower to attempt to understand concepts from class that I should have learned weeks earlier. The other half was taken up by my brain being overly stimulated by students chaotically solving problem sets while I struggled to even read the first sentence of a question.

I can admit that I’m no stellar student – I’ve had my fair share of failed assignments, midterms, and even exams. I don’t always put in the amount of effort that I should into studying. Going into my fourth year, I thought that I would have gotten the hang of things by now, rather than just being able to get by.

Looking back at my time prior to the pandemic and online learning, I realize that many factors were at play that led me to struggling each term of my degree beyond my ADHD preventing me from focusing on any of the things I should have focused on. I was always exhausted, on the edge of burning out. I spent around three hours of each day commuting in and out of the city, nearly having multiple panic attacks each time from the crowding of the rush-hour commute. Time spent on campus was fueled by pure stress of trying to make the best use of my small breaks between classes and often struggling to find somewhere peaceful enough to study. When I was home, I spent the evenings trying to get my errands, cooking, and chores done to make my place somewhat livable and fuel me. Moreover, I also worked to try to cover the expenses during my studies. I also partook in (too many) extracurricular activities to keep up.

Honestly, this isn’t any sort of unique struggle at all. It’s often glamourized to be on the edge of burning out as a student. I was told it prepares me for the work world, but quite frankly, working is far more appealing to me than paying to be so overloaded that I can’t even appreciate what I learn.

I do want to say at the very least that I did try my best during my three years of in-person classes. I got accessibility services (which helped a lot), reduced my course load a bit, re-arranged my priorities, went to counselling and therapy, worked with my professors to get more help, etc. I went through the whole deal to help myself out. But it wasn’t until the world flipped around that I found something that actually worked: online learning.

At its core, online learning provided the accessibility to finally allow me to learn properly. I no longer needed to trek through constant train delays after waking up at the brink of dawn. I no longer had to pack all three meals to get through excruciatingly long days. I no longer felt like I was heading to a campus that made me feel constrained with anxiety. I no longer had to write tests and exams in my accommodated testing location that, while letting me focus more, made me feel ignored by my professors and stranded from my peers. I no longer felt like I was being left behind by the entire academic system.

However, during PEY and prior work experiences, I didn’t feel as left behind. I was viewed as a member of a team, who is willing to learn and apply my knowledge. I could more easily communicate with team members and higher ups to develop proper deadlines, review information, and seek assistance when needed. That type of stuff was encouraged. But during in-person school, it was a never-ending series of side-quests to try to get anything to help. Trying to make the best of my learning and my time was just impossible.

When online learning came to play, for once my accessibility needs didn’t feel like a solo endeavour and an additional challenge added on to my degree. Professors, for the most part, understood that different students were in different circumstances due to the pandemic. I was lucky enough that I no longer needed to actually watch lectures live. I could access them whenever I was able to, with closed captioning, the ability to increase playback speed, and rewind if I missed anything. I was able to write open-book exams and tests that, for the most part, actually allowed me to demonstrate and apply what I had learned instead of blanking out on small details that I would never have to memorize otherwise. I felt more comfortable asking questions and for extensions for my work, even with the content delivered.

I do realize that online learning isn’t for everyone, much like how in-person learning isn’t quite for me. From conversing with other students, I realize that I got really lucky with my online classes. Every student’s online learning experience was different. Overall, it was very chaotic due to the sudden change in delivering content as well as so much happening around us.  Some students definitely felt more left behind and drained from the change, and that isn’t okay either.

Although I was on PEY for the 2020-2021 academic year, the three classes I took during that time and my experiences with the chaotic Winter 2020 term were enough to convince  me that traditional academic methods didn’t quite work for me. Nothing’s ever going to work perfectly in life, but I felt like I had a chance at it being okay with online learning in the mix.

Looking forward to Fall 2021, I try to be hopeful. Having classes in person makes academics less of a logistical nightmare, allows for easier socialization, and promotes a better sense of community. Students can more easily work together, participate in extracurricular activities, and enjoy the campus experience. But just as there are benefits to resuming in-person learning, there are also benefits to online learning that U of T shouldn’t get rid of the first moment they can.

Although we may no longer be in a time of “unforeseen circumstances” in the future, this shouldn’t mean that we stop being more accommodating like we decided to be in the past year and a half. In my opinion, we should still have better access to course content by providing recordings of lectures, just like some professors had done prior to the pandemic. Tests and exams should properly focus on our understanding of engineering concepts and our abilities to apply them with proper aids like we would in the workplace, rather than just remembering rules and regurgitating complex information. Tools and resources, such as textbooks, should be readily available for us to use. I could keep going on about the numerous changes I’d like to see.

However, whether you prefer online learning or in-person learning, I do encourage you all to speak with your professors, TAs, and peers about ways to make learning more accessible. Try to find what works best for you – even if that means you do something different than your peers. There should be no shame in learning differently and using different tools. We should have flexibility, and be encouraged to find what works for our learning. After all, we are paying for this degree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *