By Jake MacCallum
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts
Midterm season is winding down, and students are grateful to have prevailed through a frenzy of class material crammed into their brains and Blaze Pizza down their throats (unlimited toppings? C’mon LeBron). On October 18th, during the height of exam preparation, UPEI campus was just abuzz with life, and it was prime time to check its pulse. So, roaming about campus with pen and pad in hand, I got a read on the mood and morale, and more specifically, asked folks how it feels being back into the swing of in-person classes.
I took a tally of overall preference for either online or in-person classes through several interviews. The verdict returned almost unanimously in favour of good-ole brick and mortar classrooms. Really, after such a turbulent year and a half, it’s not surprising that students feel so strongly about things getting back to normal. They backed up their stance by rhyming off numerous examples of greater class participation, connecting with classmates and professors, and higher productivity and subsequent grades. As one student put, “With in person, there is more opportunity for learning. You are directly in contact with the lecture. If you have questions, it’s simpler to ask.”
I noticed a twinkle of joy in the eyes of every student with whom I spoke. Corny, I know. But it was evident that students were happy to take time out of their busy days to stop and chat for upwards of 15 minutes. Small yet meaningful exchanges like these were dearly missed.
With this semester composed of a new model of mixed delivery methods—a fair compromise considering the circumstances—unforeseen hurdles are inevitable. Despite the best of intentions from faculty, the back-and-forth of being partially online and partially in-person is received by some students as impractical: “I have an in-person class then on online right after. I can’t go home in time, and it’s hard to find a quiet space to attend on campus.”
Likewise, students expressed a great deal of frustration with the pandemic in general. This emotion translated into a list of challenges they faced in light of their online learning experience:
– reduced motivation to learn
– lack of social interaction
– distractions around the house
– trouble seeking and receiving extra help
– no bond with classmates
– too much comfort
“Being in your bedroom all the time and not finding the right space to get into a school mindset was challenging. And not being able to relate to anyone going through the same struggles. You have no one to talk to about those struggles.”
One student quite frankly told of his distaste for online learning, saying he puts up with: “[A] lot of distractions. [I] start class, roam around the house, make some cookies, and eat on the bed.” In the same breath, he explained how drastically different is his in-person experience, “As long as we’re in person, the environment keeps us going. Everyone is studying, so you get inspiration.” It would seem that just being physically present on campus catalyzes a more positive student experience.
I wondered whether students were having a tough time adjusting to this ‘new normal.’ Were there any lingering habits, good or bad, from over a year of online learning? As one student observed, “Some people are shy to put their hands up and give answers. You are more comfortable online. When people don’t know who you are with your camera off, you don’t feel as embarrassed.” And I agree; the level of accountability that comes with being face-to-face may warrant an uncomfortable reintroduction, but working through this awkwardness now should be well worth it in the long run.
It’s clear that in-person classes are the favourite, and the small band of online-school-lovers I spoke with form the exception that proves the rule. From them came a great point on course accessibility, “There is so much flexibility. And for international students, they are learning wherever they are. It is easier in terms of resources. If you miss a class, you can get back to it later.” Within this vein, I must admit that there are positives to online learning, such as flexibility and autonomy, but few will accept that these positives outweigh the negatives. Then again, outwardly negative experiences usually give birth to valuable lessons learned.
While unpleasant at the best times, the pandemic fostered intense personal growth and a shift in perspective. In accord with this notion, students opened up about changes they see in themselves and others since the pandemic broke:
“We took social interaction for granted.”
“I have a greater appreciation for simple stuff like chatting with a friend after class.”
On this topic, one student was remarkably candid and shared some sage words, “It was a shift in life. Every day you try to find something you can be motivated by. When Covid started, you get stuck in your home, in a routine of basically not doing anything, you start to form bad habits of sitting around doing nothing. Moving forward, finding the smallest things in life that motivate you to get up and do things really pushes you to find yourself, find new ways to be a better person, better student, better family member, whatever. It was the little things which motivated me to be a better person.”
I took a moment between interviews to gaze intently across campus, and I could feel this unspoken connection, a sense of togetherness that students tap into. This connection, the university’s lifeforce, has kept and continues to keep students striving upward even during the most harrowing of times.
We received great news this week. UPEI will “return to pre-pandemic level of in-person activities” next semester. And based on the unsullied spirit I witnessed on October 18th, I can only imagine how UPEI campus will look and feel come January. I mean, odds are it will look snowy and feel bitterly cold, but that’s not the point. The point is, after a rough year and a half, students are back on campus and better than ever. With perspective gained through trying times, restored motivation to learn, and new appreciation for the little things in life, UPEI Panthers are roaring loud. And with smiles like these, the future will no doubt be bright.