By Hannia Arshad, Schulich Student Online Course Design Consultant.

Hannia is a BBA candidate in her third year of studies at the Schulich School of Business. As an undergraduate student, Hannia has held many community-oriented and leadership positions. She incorporates her experiences to curate content intended for the deployment of online learning.

Overview

As students transition to a remote / online academic environment, they are faced with new challenges that may hinder their learning experiences. As a student during the Fall 2020 term, I faced a sudden shift in living circumstances, finding myself in a disruptive home environment which I had little control over. This created many stressors and made online learning difficult to manage. Many students are faced with similar unprecedented home situations that instructors may be unaware of, impacting their online learning. The role of instructors will prove to be more important than ever as they will be faced with more questions and worries about the well-being of their students. To address these concerns, students are appreciative when instructors are mindful of their circumstances and direct them to appropriate resources when able.

Learning from Home Limitations

Key Takeaway: Not all students have the capacity to ideally participate in synchronous learning due to potentially disruptive home environments. Instructors can alleviate this challenge by providing students with asynchronous opportunities to engage with the course content and succeed in their courses.

Popular studying spots such as campuses, cafes, and libraries are currently operating with strict capacity limits in accordance with social distancing regulations. As a result, students have transformed their living spaces to accommodate remote learning, but not all students have the capacity to ideally do so. Those who live in noisy environments or populated homes (i.e. younger children, dependents, spouses) may be unable to dedicate a quiet space to themselves. This can interfere with synchronous learning where students may be unable to attend and focus on live lectures without disruption. This may also force students to study during odd hours of the day. As a student, I found myself studying well into the night where I managed to dedicate quiet hours to my courses. Ensuring class participation does not solely rely on attending live lectures will give students opportunities to work through the content on their own time to effectively understand the material and contribute their knowledge.

Synchronous learning can further exacerbate student stress if they face unreliable Internet connections or issues with their personal electronic devices. As a result, students appreciate opportunities to access and download course materials in a variety of formats and well in advance, where applicable. Making course content accessible through PowerPoints, audio and video lecture recordings, or online assessments with flexible completion windows, allow students to work at their own pace.

The Use of Webcams on Zoom

Key Takeaway: Be mindful of the constraints on students when they’re attending classes remotely. A seemingly insignificant aspect of remote learning, such as webcams, can become a major stressor for those who are uncomfortable or unable to turn their videos on. Instructors can alleviate this stress by choosing and communicating in advance which points in the synchronous session they feel it would be most useful for webcams to be on.

A view into an individual’s home can provide many implications about their living situations. Students may not be comfortable turning their webcams on during live Zoom lectures as their backgrounds can expose an intimate aspect of their life. As a solution, instructors may encourage the use of virtual backgrounds (if their computer meets the system requirements for a virtual background). Instructors may also emphasize the use of nonverbal communication during live lectures or tutorials, allowing students to provide feedback and participate by using built in platform features. For example, Zoom allows students to share thoughts within the live chat, indicate their opinion on a topic through a variety of selections, or use the “raise hand” feature to ask a question.

Communicating webcam use and participation expectations at the start of a course also allows students to better prepare themselves for attending classes remotely. Consider the environment of students learning from home. Some may attend Zoom sessions in a room shared with other family members. For other students, it may mean attending the session out of religious attire such as a hijab. During these sessions, suddenly asking for students to turn their cameras on may be disorienting. Rather, a friendly reminder of expected webcam use at the start of the course is appreciated, along with sharing how the use of webcams contribute to engaging discussions and overall class participation. Students may also be motivated by learning the impact of webcam use during in-class presentations. Overall, receiving attention through webcams can help encourage participation and class community as both students and instructors can better familiarize themselves with those in the class, and create a positive classroom environment conducive to learning.

Supporting Students and Redirecting to Support Services

Key Takeaway: Instructors can open lines of communication with their students through Canvas course features. They can also redirect students who feel lost during their transition to online / remote learning to resources intended to help navigate through these challenging times. There are many services provided by Schulich and York University to help students face academic, mental, and physical stress related to remote learning and the greater university environment.

With remote learning, students may perceive a loss of support when they are unable to physically attend classes or access student services on campus. Students may be confused and frustrated by the sheer number of support websites and wait times to access their mental health, financial, or international services, and turn to instructors for direction. Understanding these many hurdles and providing appropriate flexibility can help reduce student anxieties during the term. Opening lines of communication will allow instructors to better understand their students’ personal situations and accommodate them as best as possible. For example, creating general discussion forums on Canvas can create an open space for students to voice questions regarding course materials. Regular office hours and Canvas emails can allow students to reach their instructors to voice any personal concerns. Furthermore, interim feedback surveys may provide telling insights about students’ progress and issues faced in a course. For additional concerns unrelated to course materials, students can be encouraged to contact Student Services and seek appropriate resources beneficial to their well-beings and contribute to their success in the course.