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Don't Tell Me The Isolating Struggle Of Online Learning's Worth A Full University Tuition

We didn't sign up for this.

I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed and put on a pair of sweatpants to attend my first lecture of the semester, which took place on my clutter-filled desk about four feet from the edge of my bed. I opened Zoom only to be greeted by 40 blank screens with the names of other sociology students who had their cameras turned off, and a professor who unenthusiastically recited notes from his slides. I spent half the class trying to stay awake, and the other half resisting the pull of my Instagram feed. When the lecture ended, I stared at the blank computer screen. I felt completely isolated.

The writer's desk, where she spent most of her days working on a laptop and experiencing feelings of isolation.
Erika MacKenzie
The writer's desk, where she spent most of her days working on a laptop and experiencing feelings of isolation.

From September to December 2020, that was my life, eight hours a day. I barely left the confines of my 700-square-foot Montreal apartment. I ended my first semester feeling even more disillusioned than when it started. Like many other students, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

To say that this year has been challenging for university students is a vast understatement.

When I decided to attend McGill University, I fell in love with the “university experience” that the school sold to me. On my first tour of the campus, I pictured myself walking through the quad to get to classes, hitting the Sir Arthur Currie Memorial Gymnasium for a morning workout, meeting up with friends in the RVC Dining Hall, and grinding for exams at McClennan Library.

It’s in the little moments when you spot a familiar face in a crowded lecture hall or spend an entire evening in the library with your best friend that make university so special. I took my first two years for granted because I was unaware that all of it could be ripped away from me so suddenly.

“We’ve lost all of the elements of university that make it so enjoyable and memorable.”

Dubiously, tuition rates haven’t changed since many universities switched to online learning. In fact, they have increased at my school. As an out-of-province bachelor of arts student, I spent over $8,000 on tuition this year alone. Although McGill has increased scholarships and financial aid this year, the application process is lengthy, and many students don’t meet the criteria for receiving aid. First-year international students are generally not eligible for needs-based aid from McGill.

The Canadian Federation of Students even called on universities to reduce tuition costs. Yet, in the middle of a financial recession, McGill and other universities have tried to justify keeping tuition rates the same by arguing that the quality of the learning experience is as good as it has been in previous years. None of it seems to add up.

The real cost of remote learning

Part of the appeal of university is that campus libraries, cafes and study hubs act as equalizers for students who would otherwise have very different learning environments at home. Now that us students are left to our own devices, we have struggled to replicate the quiet and stress-free work environment we need to thrive. Spending extended hours online every day has had negative impacts on many students’ mental and physical well-being.

In my case, virtual learning has destroyed my sleep schedule. After spending all day staring at my screen, I found it difficult to shut off my brain when I tried to sleep. I lost so many hours of sleep in my first week of classes that I felt physically ill. The money I spent on therapy sessions, blue-light glasses and sunlamps in an effort to improve my sleep was an additional strain on my financial resources. In conjunction with being drained, the lack of sleep made me more anxious and depressed, further inhibiting my academic performance.

University students are shouldering many of the challenges (and costs) of going virtual.
sturti via Getty Images
University students are shouldering many of the challenges (and costs) of going virtual.

Online learning was also incredibly frustrating. From a spotty Wi-Fi connection, to broken links, a distracting work environment and poor communication from professors — virtual education comes with a major learning curve. On one occasion, I spent 45 minutes waiting for a professor to let me into his Zoom office hours because he did not know how to admit me to the meeting. He was far from my only professor facing a challenging adjustment to Zoom.

Despite having several months to plan, professors did not seem to have a universal plan for how to proceed with the semester. Some professors had weekly live lectures on Zoom, others posted recorded lectures, and some used a combination of both. The variable methods of course delivery made it especially difficult to organize my schedule and prepare for class. Many other students studying in different time zones have had to wake up in the middle of the night to attend live lectures and catch up on class material.

As a student, I accept that remote learning is the only option during a global pandemic. I also understand that professors are under a great deal of stress and that courses may not run as smoothly as they previously had. What I don’t accept is the rhetoric my school is pushing forward that everything is going well. While McGill argues that online university is a more flexible learning approach that provides students with a less intimidating environment to engage in discussion, they neglect that many students and professors experience Zoom fatigue.

Students have been flexible in adapting to the circumstances, but the reality is that we did not sign up for remote learning. We’ve lost all of the elements of university that make it so enjoyable and memorable.

When I pay for tuition, I am paying for more than just a piece of paper that proves I attended. I am paying for a transformative, life-changing experience. In a year filled with turmoil and grief, I wish my university and others acknowledged the undue burden they are placing on students’ shoulders by charging high tuition rates.

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