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  • Hridya Chaudhary

Different Shoes, Same Walks: Online Learning!

There’s no denying that September 2020 school semester shook up our concepts of universities as a whole. It is way different than anything we would’ve imagined our university experience to be. Teaching/learning is stressful in itself, add navigating online portals to it - it becomes 2x more stressful especially if you aren’t expecting it. Every person has their own experiences regarding it, but there are major overlaps in all of them. 

CT interviewed three people who have been dealing with this online semester in different ways. First up is a Humanities professor, Dr. Sylvia Burrow (Philosophy and Religious Studies), residing in Cape Breton, followed by Mandeep Kaur, pursuing her Post Baccalaureate diploma in Business Management all the way from Delhi, India, and then there’s me, Hridya Chaudhary, doing my Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and English from Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

1. Are you satisfied with the online services / features available at Cape Breton University? 

Dr. Burrow: I’m fairly satisfied with the online services at CBU. Perhaps more - or just different forms of - technical support could be made available to students while they figure out Moodle and Teams and so forth. I wonder if they are accessing their “Start Smart” info. I receive a fairly large number of basic questions that tell me more information uptake by the students would be a good thing. I am not sure what would do the work of encouraging them to get on board with the ins and outs of the technology but I do see a need there.

Chaudhary: Outlook, Moodle, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom are all the services I use for my classes. I am fairly satisfied with it, no complaints. Although I do personally prefer Zoom over Teams, the fact that not all of my classes require me to be on video all the time makes up for it. I do feel that CBU IT services take a while to get back to you but that’s probably just because they’re swarmed with emails. Dr. Burrow is right, I haven’t done the Start Smart course but my brain would probably benefit from the information uptake.  

2. Which tools do you use the most while teaching online? 

Dr. Burrow: When I’m teaching online I’m using a lot of the features of Teams and Moodle. I find that I have plenty of resources there and I don’t need to turn elsewhere!

Chaudhary: Outlook, Moodle, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. 

3. Do you think your students/you are tech savvy enough or equipped to use the benefit of online learning? What about neurodivergent students? 

Dr. Burrow: From what I can tell, students need more time to get used to the technology involved in online learning. But I don’t think it will take too much time for people to catch on. Much of this is new to students but with time I think many will be able to grasp the new use of technology. Having said that, I do think students need more, or just different sources of information, regarding how things work online. Especially that is the case for neurodivergent students, who might need extra time or simply different ways of understanding how things work for different classes and using different media to access those classes. I would say that should be a top priority of the Jennifer Keeping Access Centre, front and centre.

Chaudhary: I was so frustrated in the beginning when we had a -new- Moodle site, a -new- CBU website, and navigation of -new- online courses all at once. The overload of -new- things was overwhelming and definitely took time to get used to but I am now fine with it. One advantage of online learning is the fact that some teachers are going above and beyond to make education more accessible to everyone who learns in different ways. For example, my Psychology professor, Andrea Shaheen has been uploading her lecture powerpoint presentations along with her audio video voice overs, which makes it specifically easy for me to follow through because it is easier for me to concentrate on the voice more rather than the text.  

4. How was your transition from hands on teaching/learning to online teaching/learning like? 

Dr. Burrow: I’ve taught online for quite a long time, using different platforms as technology has progressed. So I’m fairly familiar with much of what happens in the background of online learning. However, I’m still learning and adapting, especially in the Teams environment. So transitioning within Teams has been interesting, and I’ve adapted my pedagogy to its environment  - my teaching now lies somewhere in-between what I would do in a face-to-face environment and what I’ve done in the past for online courses.

Chaudhary: I’ve taken online summer courses before but this semester is way different than traditional online courses. Summer courses you wrap up in two months, you’re at your own mercy if you want to learn but this fall semester, I feel like teachers are holding students accountable for learning which is a vice and a virtue at the same time. 

5. As a teacher do you think online learning has more pros than cons or is it the other way around? 

Dr. Burrow: Online learning can be highly beneficial to students, particularly those who would like extra time to go over notes or other material – at least if it’s all there, posted, so there’s lots of time to access it. Also, if people can access material at times then that might be more convenient to them, say if they are working, have a heavy class load, or have children, they might like to access material at times that fit their schedule better. Online learning has its advantages. But it is not a replacement for F2F learning, that is for sure. And whether or not online learning works well as an accompaniment to F2F learning (or as a replacement even) really depends on who is accessing the course – so whether or not online learning is beneficial for any one particular student is a matter of what their particular needs are and whether their online course format meets those needs.

6. According to you, what are the main challenges in online teaching/learning? 

Dr. Burrow: Learning in an online environment can be challenging, absolutely. If a student is uncertain about how to use the technology or is reluctant to have their voice heard (literally, or through online chats or emails) then that student is at risk of not getting as much out of the course as they would have liked. On the other hand, plenty of students do not want to have their voice heard in a F2F setting and have the same problem in that setting – those students might end up becoming more vocal in email or chats when they otherwise would have stayed silent. So there can be bonuses to online learning. It depends on the students’ needs and abilities, whether or not their learning will be successful – whether they are in an online or F2F setting.

Kaur: In my opinion, online learning is pretty challenging and tiring. As easy as we first thought it would be, it comes with a great deal of drawbacks. According to me the biggest challenge that is offered is regarding the network issues. For a person like me, missing on studies gives a lot of anxiety and if during lectures my network crashes it will create a state of utter panic and anxiety for me. Though our professors record our lectures it still disrupts the flow of learning. 

Another issue that I feel students across the world are facing is to stay updated about the courses. There are a lot of apps we have downloaded and then we look at the outlook email which we have to check on a regular basis. Staying updated becomes more difficult when you and your professors are living in different time zones. For example, if my professor posts something on moodle @4:30pm  from his end, I'm receiving it at @2am. So the first thing I do in the morning after I wake up is to check my Moodle, top hat, slate, and Outlook.  Keeping this all aside, I really appreciate my Professors who are working really hard to give us a great University experience even when they themselves are facing challenges from online classes. 

7. Do you think online teaching platforms should be upgraded or are you satisfied with the current state? 

Dr. Burrow: CBU has quite recent forms of software for online learning so I am not concerned about that.

8. How do time zones play a role in your ability to attend class, learn and/or complete assignments?

Kaur: Time zones play a great role in online classes. My day is completely topsy turvy because of the classes. I attend classes till @8 and then start studying which takes more than 3 hours and have my dinner @11. Also since we are living with our families, there will be times when we have to go somewhere or run some errands, it will be arduous for us to manage our time accordingly. For me my class starts @5:15pm everyday, and if I have to go somewhere, either I have to go in the morning and return before 5 or go after 8pm when my classes end. 

9. If given the power to change one thing about this whole shebang, what would you change and why? 

Dr. Burrow: Perhaps we could see more technical support for students right from day one to offer very basic walk-through instructions right on up to more technical details of accessing online learning. But this is more of a wish for the future, when people have a bit more time. We have just been thrown into online learning suddenly because of the pandemic. So I am not disrespecting our CBU IT services people. They have done an incredible job implementing so much new software to handle a huge wave of online learning while they too are in the face of a pandemic. Kudos to our CBU IT Services people!

Kaur: If I have the power, I'll honestly condemn this entire online learning system (kidding). Looking at the current system, I would like to change 1 thing and that is:  I'll ask the professors to take either synchronous or asynchronous classes. It feels really tough to go through 2-3 videos of 30mins each,  reading the textbook and then attending a 1hr 15mins class for the same courses. Want it or not, we have to devote more time to that particular course which leaves us with less time for other courses and then we have to eat, sleep, and watch some Netflix too. 

10. Do you think online learning is the future? 

Dr. Burrow: I’d like to see teaching become more flexible for students. So having online teaching can really help students who might find it hard to make it into class, like those with physical or cognitive disabilities or impairments, working students, students who live far from campus, and students who might find it difficult just to make it in because of transportation issues. Those aren’t even all the reasons why offering some online components might help students. But that need not mean the end of F2F teaching. And I don’t think it should mean the end of F2F teaching because that is really where the learning environment functions best, I would say. At least from my perspective now. Perhaps in 5 years things will look different. But I suspect that nothing is really going to top F2F learning. 

11. Do you think an AI takeover is inevitable?

Dr. Burrow: AI is continually developing and has become ubiquitous in our current environment. We benefit from it quite a lot in our daily lives, whether we are aware of that or not. At any rate, I doubt that we will be taken over by AI. But we might get taken in by it, at least in some circumstances. It’s easy for someone to be fooled or duped if they don’t know what to look out for.

Kaur: I don't think AI takeover is inevitable. I have hope for the future and I feel we'll be on campus in January. So these online classes are going to end soon. Maybe in future, schools and universities will consider AI but for now it is difficult for students sitting in different countries with different time zones.

Chaudhary: Oh god, please NO. I wouldn’t want to survive in a world without feelings. (EMPATHY, PEOPLE!) 

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