University Courses Online: What’s Working & What’s Not

Image by HaticeEROL on Pixabay

Online learning during COVID-19 has been a unique experience to say the least. Everything from homework, to examinations, to office hours have changed dramatically to accomodate the pandemic, and with these changes comes a feeling of what has worked and what hasn’t. As part of the younger subset of Medium authors, I’m in a position to provide some insight to how learning has adapted. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, but these are my experiences as a Canadian university student. I’ll start with smaller topics and build up to larger ones.

  1. File Sharing
  2. Lectures and Recordings
  3. Homework
  4. Exams
  5. Whereby & Piazza
  6. Motivation and Burnout
  7. Conclusion

File Sharing

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of how some classes have poorly adapted to being online is file sharing. When I’m talking about file sharing, I’m referring to homework and lectures primarily. Good file sharing is important in normal times, but it is especially important when everything is done online.

My biggest gripe with some courses is that there isn’t a good naming convention for their files. Putting the content of your slideshow as the title of your file (ex: HydraulicPower.pdf ) might seem like a good idea, but the problem is that when the files are displayed on an online platform or sitting in your computer’s file directory, the lectures will be in alphabetical order, and thus messy (you can sort by date on your computer, but maybe not on your online learning platform). Personally, it’s far more important for the lectures to be in chronological order so that you can review slides in the order that you learned them, and keep track of when a new lecture or homework is uploaded.

One solution would be to put lecture number and topic (ex: lec4_Hydralic_power.pdf), but if that gets too messy, it’s worthwhile to mention that most slide decks have a title in the first slide, so students can use Windows’ file preview pane to quickly identify what a lecture is about, allowing the file’s name to only be the lecture number.

Clicking on a file in WIndows with View->Preview Pane enabled can tell you what a lecture is about. This makes just having a lecture number very viable and organized.

This whole ordeal might seem like a pet peeve, but have a look at an example of what I would call a bad naming convention:

The names are all over the place, which makes it very hard to see when new content has been uploaded. The name of the course being in the title is also pretty unecessary as this would all be downloaded into a folder with said name.

The only other good practice I have noticed is converting all homework and lectures to .pdf rather than leaving them in .pptx or something else. PDFs usually have a smaller file size than Powerpoint files, and they’re generally more universally openable by students in my experience.

Lectures and Recordings

Mic quality. Some professors and teaching assistants are defaulting to their laptop microphones, which is, as unfair as it might be, unacceptable. When you don’t have a good microphone, you risk having terrible audio quality, making your voice distracting to listen to. In the worst cases, bad mics can pick up on laptop fans or produce static noises that will encourage students to just skip lecture. Youtuber and mathematician Matt Parker recently made a video explaining to late night hosts how they could get better production from home, and he recommended a Lapel Mic. These microphones can be as cheap as $25 and dramatically increase the quality of audio as he demonstrates in his video. The video also addresses video quality, but I don’t think that is nearly as important if you’re lecturing over slides, which is usually the case in university.

Another important feature of good courses is that they end on time. When classes were held in person, classes ended 10 minutes early so that people could get to their next class on time, and it was increased to 15 minutes usually for longer lectures (1h30m lectures). In the transition to online lecture, this break has often been lost, and I’m not sure if that was intentionally specified by administration or if it was assumed by professors that the time wasn’t needed for walking to the next class. Nonetheless, the break is absolutely necessary. When you have a busy schedule like me and you have multiple courses stacked one after another, professors ending class on the hour often means I have to stare at my screen for hours without a bathroom break or a chance to refill my water bottle. Another consequence of not finishing on time is that all the students don’t get a chance to rest their eyes, which is essential, especially in quarantine.

Switching gears to recordings, good classes provide recordings of lectures. UBC uses Canvas to organize class assignments, announcements, and quizzes, and Canvas has integrated really well with Zoom in that we have a Zoom tab where we can easily see upcoming lectures and past recordings. Besides making lectures more accessible to people in different timezones, recordings also give students the flexibility to miss certain classes and still be able to catch up afterwards. The caveat, of course, is that you can’t ask questions to a recording. This raises an important realiziation: you can’t only have recordings. Asking the professor for clarification is an essential part of learning that can’t be sidelined when moving to courses online, and so I think that having live lectures and recording them for replay is the ideal solution. I have some friends who only have asynchronous lectures, and while they may be bolstered by office hours, I still think the classroom model in which teachers can interact with students as they’re learning is going to be the best bet.

Homework

Other than the need to scan homework, online learning hasn’t changed homework for the most part. Nonetheless, a small feature in a number of my courses is that they are assigning homework on a biweekly basis rather than on a weekly basis, with the homework being a little bit harder or longer to compensate. Given how many classes are doing this, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an adminstrative decision, and I’m glad that this decision was made. Having homework due 2 weeks after it is assigned seems to make my schedule more flexible as I can get it done early and not worry about homework for a week.

Exams

Exams, in contrast to homework, have changed a lot. Since exams are submitted online, it’s pretty much necessary for students to have a way to write their work on a tablet, or scan their work using a scanner/phone app and upload it or email it to themselves such that they can submit it on their computer. Something I took for granted was that my teachers have allowed 10–30 extra minutes for scanning and submitting work after writing the exam. I’ve heard from my friends that their professors weren’t as generous, only allowing 5 minutes, which obviously disproportionally impacts those that aren’t good with technology and those that don’t own tablets and smartphones with scanning apps.

Another interesting aspect of online exams is that they’ve been largely open book exams, meaning that while collaboration between students is still obviously forbidden, students have been allowed to use their notes, textbooks, and even the internet sometimes during exams. This doesn’t make exams as trivial as it seems, as the questions are always unique questions that are conceptually harder and not simple lookups. I find this practice has been good for professors as they have to worry less about cheating since the lowest hanging fruit in cheating is no longer considered cheating. The questions are also required to have more depth, since they can’t be copy and pasted from the internet.

We’re usually required to have our cameras on for exams, but not for lectures. I have no experience with proctoring or Proctorio, but I’ve heard some horror stories regarding proctored exams, so I get the feeling that having camera on during exams and having exams be open book is a good enough policy.

Whereby & Piazza

Some of my professors are using a site called whereby.com, which is essentially a virtual office. People can line up at your door and knock, and the professor can let in 1 or multiple people for questions or office hours. I think this is a really good idea, as it replaces the existence of a physical office that you could visit which would otherwise be unavailable during COVID-19. It has the same features as other video chat software, such as screen sharing, muting, and facecams, but just having that office feel seems to make it easier for professors and students. I’m not sponsored by Whereby, but I think that they’re doing is great.

Piazza is a website that UBC courses have been using for a while. Essentially, it’s a forum for your class where you can ask questions and get responses from your peers, teaching assistants and the professor. Before, I rarely used it, but in COVID times, getting access to help has become a lot harder so it’s very useful. The main advantage is that you can post questions at any time, so you’re not limited to office hours for getting help. Again, not sponsored, but a great platform.

Motivation and Burnout

So far, the topics that I’ve covered are relatively simple and easy fixes. This topic, motivation and burnout, is no longer a trivial technological problem. I’m hearing from a lot of students (my friends, r/UBC, other classmates) that they aren’t as motivated in online studies, and that they feel burnt out, and I’ve definitely been there myself. This problem is a lot harder to fix, so I won’t pretend like I know the solution. Instead, I’ll talk about what might be causing it, and leave the solutions to someone else as a research gap.

One reason I think people aren’t as motivated and are much more tired is that school used to drive our schedules. Many of us would wake up early, commute to school, commute back, eat, work, shower, and then go to sleep. Now that there is no commute, our schedules have become more flexible which has allowed for people like me to sleep at irregular times. WIthout needing to commute, my early morning wakeup is slow on inconsistent because my classes start at different times on dfiferent days. It’s well documented that not sleeping consistently is bad, so it’s an issue.

On top of poor sleep, a lot of people, including myself, aren’t getting enough exercise. Part of it is due to the gym being inaccessible as the main source of exercise for myself, but some of it is also a busy schedule and a lack of motivation. I’m suggesting that not exercising leads to low motivation, which in turn leads to less exercise too. Again, not exercising is documented to be bad for you, and there is definitely a positive feedback loop of not exercising right now.

Another interesting topic in motivation and burning out is social interaction. I would describe myself as slightly introverted, but I’m sure most of us in lockdown direly miss being with friends and peers no matter what your supposed -version is. It is no doubt that some people learn better with other people around them, and being isolated, as we are, is a hindrance for those people. A lot of my friends claim they want to try personal projects, but that they are too burnt out to do so. I would suggest that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has a reason as to why:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by simplypsychology.org. Note how belonging and a sense of community are declared prerequisites of actualization and esteem.

Without the study groups and friends that we’re used to, students have lost a sense of community, which, according to this pyramid, gates us from esteem and self-actualization, which I would think is related to motivation and the drive to actualize personal projects. I recognize Maslow’s hierachy of needs has flaws and isn’t simple ground truth, but I would suggest that burnout has become more prevalent and that losing community and belonging has been part of the cause. It’s also worth mentioning that a common tactic in realizing your goals is to tell people about them so that they can hold you accountable, and again, that’s made a lot harder by COVID-19.

I find myself enjoying classes where students get to collaborate in a breakout room, and I’ve also really appreciated that student groups and design teams that I’m a part of have created online social events for their students. One of my friends has a special setup where all the people in class turn on their webcams and focus on discussions, which I think is a great idea that should be tried more. Again, I’m not sure what will work best, but these are the feelings that I’m getting.

Conclusion

I recognize that to some, what I’m talking about in this article is asking a lot of professors and staff, especially in the times we face. Nonetheless, I’m frequently left with the feeling that we can do better. Institutions have had time to adapt to online learning since it started in 2020, and I feel that we should hold them to the highest standards, to a limit of course. Despite the mention of a lot of good features of online learning in this article, the general feel from my peers and myself is that online learning is a big downgrade from learning in person, which is a stark juxtaposition with unchanged tuitions. This is only to be expected; given that professors are having as much trouble transitioning as us, its understandable. Some people might be enjoying online learning a lot, and others will agree with me that online learning is a challenge. I think that we can all agree, however, that the classes that provide chances for feedback and then go on to integrate that feedback are the best of all, and will be necessary as we weather this pandemic.

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Engineering Physics student, rc airplane design team, Python addict, YouTuber. Current Shopify intern, and future Tesla intern, which is pretty neat

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Kevin Lin

Kevin Lin

Engineering Physics student, rc airplane design team, Python addict, YouTuber. Current Shopify intern, and future Tesla intern, which is pretty neat

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