Learning online during the pandemic

January 5, 2021

I’m writing during my winter break, having finished the first semester of my masters program learning online. 2020 was a difficult year as many others have already eloquently described. I wanted to give a bit of a glimpse into what starting a graduate program is like right now. 

I accepted the offer to my program back in March of last year, and at the time it already had hybrid learning as an option. This meant that you could attend classes in person or online, which supposedly lets you maintain a full-time job and not have to relocate. Great, we love to see it! I liked the inclusivity of the multiple options, but I still intended on attending classes in person while working full-time.

So, none of that went according to plan. As the pandemic drew longer, the possibility of classes being fully online was becoming more real. I had also decided to quit my job and go freelance in the summer so I was hoping that school would be a big part of my social life as it had been in my undergrad.

But as you may have experienced, it’s really hard to connect with people online sometimes! The awkwardness of video calls adds another layer to interacting with people you don’t know. There are less visual cues to go off of in order to start a conversation. On top of that, our group of about 20 students had varying internet connections, timezones, energy levels, and levels speaking English. I’m lucky to have the technology, internet access and quiet space for class meetings, but my laptop would often crash (it’s almost 10 years old) meaning I would miss out on participation.

︎︎︎ The pandemic has highlighted the inequality in access to internet and technology for many Canadians (CBC)

A lot of class time was spent on course material and troubleshooting technical difficulties, leaving less opportunity for chatter. Every interaction felt very task or goal-oriented. I quickly realized how much of my learning experience relies on feeling a sense of belonging, which is fostered from having informal interactions and building social relationships. 

In college, this sense of belonging helped me stay on the right track and gave me a safe space for critique and feedback. I find that I learn better by discussing topics with other people I trust. Trust takes time to build, for me it’s mostly through shared experiences. As the semester went on, I often grew frustrated at how it just felt like it was me and the computer instead of me in a group of other students. But on the other hand, classes going 100% online provided a sort of equalizer for other students who otherwise would not have been able to take this program because of their limited time. This made me realize how nuanced and complicated access to online education can be.

︎︎︎ ‘Online education isn’t as inclusive as you may think’ (University Affairs)

Our class found some small successes by the winter, such as using emojis, GIFs, and less ‘academic’ writing as a more friendly and inclusive way to communicate, as well as taking some time in meetings to let the conversation wander. I find that video chats in smaller groups are more intimate and comfy. Our professor did a little Google Jamboard at the end of the semester to share nice messages to each other and y’all it made me tear up! Maybe making friends online just takes a bit more effort, or requires a different set of skills. I mean, I made a lot of friends on Neopets back in the day :)

I can tell the intent to connect is there and I think we’ll get there eventually in our own way. I’m looking forward to starting the next semester and finding new ways of connecting with my class!

Are you learning online right now, or did you start a new job during the pandemic? I’m curious to hear about your experience making friends as well. Let me know!