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The fall semester will soon come to a close as VIU students complete their first full semester of online schooling. Although many students have returned to school, they have not returned to the normalcy of what they expected or what they wanted—they have returned to something many are calling a waste of time, a waste of money, and an abundance of unneeded stress.

Although students do have an understanding of why classes are online—to keep them, their classmates, and their professors safe during the COVID-19 pandemic—they cannot help but feel disconnected and lonely.

First-year students are entering a campus environment without the same tools they may have otherwise had to make friends and connections. Returning students are no longer able to see their friends and classmates as they used to.

All-nighters at the library, cramming into the campus Starbucks, and lunch dates in the cafeteria have become a thing of the past as students are advised to stay home, or at least stay distanced from others.

Kim Jager is a first-year student studying social work at VIU. “I don’t feel as if I’m going to university, I feel as if it’s just me, myself, and my computer,” she said.

This is Jager’s first time living by herself, and even though she knew classes were going to be online, she moved to Nanaimo in hopes of making friends at school or in the city.

“I’m working a full-time job while doing four classes,” Jager said. Her school work alone takes up 35 hours a week. Although her classes would normally be three hours long in person, many of her professors are now fitting their lectures into classes that go for an hour and a half. Jager is finding that although class lectures are shorter, this does not make them any less stressful.

“I think [online classes] definitely add more stress. I have to teach myself every theory, every strategy that I’m learning, especially because the field I’m going into—social work—I’m learning I have to communicate with people so I think this online barrier of not being able to be face to face with someone is pretty hard.”

When Jager refers to having to “teach herself,” she means that while her lectures are shorter, her professors are giving their students more readings and assignments to make up for time.

“I definitely believe that there is more homework and assignments being given as they can’t purposely do [the] full entire lecture that they were doing before,” Jager said.

She went on to say she feels professors are handing out work that will not be graded just so the students have work to do. “In one of my classes I’m doing, every week I have to do an assignment where I talk about the issues, and I feel like she’s not really marking them. It’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, she did it,’” Jager said.

Although the professors still need to count marks for participation, Jager believes they’re having the students do a lot more unnecessary work when it could have easily come down to answering a question in class or participating in discussion.

Jager feels professors can help make online classes less stressful and difficult if they take the time to make sure their students understand what they are learning. She would also like to see professors allow students to pinpoint areas of each lecture that they want to learn more about.

“I think that a lot of [the professors] are now just throwing [students] at the book saying, ‘Read this textbook.’ They’re not going out of their way to video themselves talking about the lectures. It’s more now, ‘Read this paragraph, read this chapter.’ It’s not, ‘Here let me sit down, [record] myself explaining it.’”

Along with the stress of online classes, Jager said she has been having a hard time making friends with people in her classes and her program.

“It’s definitely harder to reach out to others online. Even trying to add them on social media I think is harder because they’re like, ‘Oh, why did you add me on social media? You only knew my name and now you’re stalking me.’ So, I definitely think that’s a harder part of it because you don’t know these people. You’ve never really talked to them on any other occasion, except for being online. So now you’re trying to connect with them and reach out to them, and it’s definitely a bigger barrier.”

Jager came from living in Campbell River with her parents and two dogs in the same town as her boyfriend. She is now living alone in a basement suite, where the sounds of her landlord’s family above her make her feel homesick.

“When I first decided to move [to] Nanaimo, I always thought it would be a great chance to meet friends. … But it turns out that it’s been a different experience for sure,” Jager said. “Sitting, watching people talk on a screen trying to form connections just through technology is really hard. And I think that adds to a big part of my loneliness.”

Having no classes in person, Jager said that along with missing out on connecting with her classmates and professors, she has also been unable to connect to “campus life.” “I don’t feel like I am a part of the VIU community,” Jager said.

Jager has only been to the VIU campus three times—each time just to pick up textbooks.

“I think it’s hard with what’s happening and the Coronavirus, but I think they [need to try to do more in-person] events, and I know it’s going to be hard, but finding ways to connect within their student bases. Even if it’s trying to get a group of kids together … in the school, just trying to connect with each student in a different way.”

Jager admits that although she does have close friends in Nanaimo and she has been able to make some new friends since moving, online classes have left her feeling lonely a lot more than she expected. She is not the only student feeling this way.

Gemma Armstrong, a VIU counsellor, and Sara LaMarre, a VIU mental health strategist, said together through a collaborative email correspondence that there has been a rise in loneliness due to online classes and having to social distance.

“Experiences of loneliness have been more common due to the need for physical distancing and the shift to online with school and many other activities. Being alone doesn’t necessarily have to mean being lonely, but when that time alone is not in balance with quality connection and support, then loneliness is often felt. When courses are offered online, it’s an adjustment in the way students build new relationships. That possibility of turning to a classmate for a few casual words of hello or to get to know each other isn’t there. … Many people are experiencing greater levels of loneliness than pre-Covid times,” Armstrong and LaMarre said.

Armstrong and LaMarre went on to say loneliness has many negative effects on our health, and that this is important to address. They said although it is normal to experience ups and downs in our mental health, it is when “you’re struggling to manage, turning to unhealthy ways of coping, or if you find yourself having thoughts of suicide or are otherwise unsafe,” that you should reach out for help. They also said it is important to find new ways to connect with people, even if it’s virtually.

“While isolation is a reality for many folks, there are still ways to build new relationships, be part of communities, and rekindle connections that may have fallen away. Consider all your options—who from the past might you be interested in getting back in touch with? Are there neighbours that you could sit outside with for a short visit? What friends or family members could you write a letter to, invite for a video chat? Are there online communities that interest you that you could share more with, or where you might respond to others who you can relate to? Or perhaps you have a few spare hours to volunteer?

“These things take time and often courage, especially when you’re meeting new people… but stretch your comfort zone! Your health and wellbeing are worth the investment, and you’ll be benefiting others too,” Armstrong and LaMarre said.

Solveig Watkins had the past two years to make friends in the Interior Design program at VIU and also lived in student residences with many of her classmates. They would spend most of their time together, working on class projects late into the night. Those days are a distant memory as she looks at a grid of fellow students on a computer screen.

Watkins decided to stay with her family in Victoria for the school year. She believed it was the best option for her since her program was going to be fully online. It wasn’t until she was distanced from her classmates that she realized how much she relied on talking with her professors and classmates in person to keep on track with assignments or to make sure she is doing assignments correctly.

“I think something that I didn’t realize that I relied on so much was just doing quick little check-ins with classmates on due dates, and where so-and-so is on that assignment. And when online, you don’t have that because you’re not talking on a regular basis with all of your classmates.”

Watkins feels more anxious about her classes and her classwork. “I find with online classes, there is always a little part in the back of your head that’s like; I have an assignment. Is there an assignment? Should I be working on something? Or did I miss a class? And stuff like that, which you didn’t have as much in person because you could constantly check-in.”

Watkins felt lonely at the beginning of the school year, but as the year went on, she started to see more friends in Victoria and found ways to keep herself busy.

With her program now entirely online, Watkins feels a lack of aspiration to learn. “I know that I’m progressing in my education stuff, but there is kind of a sense of a little bit of like, ‘What are you doing’ because you’re just on your laptop. It doesn’t really feel like you’re getting like as much of an education. … There is kind of a lack of purpose, I find.”

Kathryn Atkinson is a sessional instructor teaching health and human services for the Department of Child and Youth Care. She teaches three classes this semester, and only one has a Zoom class. For her asynchronous classes, Atkinson makes times for her students to meet over Zoom so they can engage with her in real time. She will have a question and answer period before exams so students can meet virtually face to face to discuss bigger questions that might appear on the exam.

Atkinson has found that many students are enjoying online classes and being able to work during their own time.

“With the online classes, it’s a lot more flexible. I think online is great, because we’re able to reach people that we normally couldn’t. I actually have many more students that have enrolled this semester for the first time, because it was online, and it meant that it would fit into their lifestyle, or they don’t have to move, they can do it from a further distance.”

She said one thing she found helpful for students was telling them at the very beginning whether the classes were going to be synchronous or asynchronous. This allowed them to plan their lives around going to Zoom classes or not.

Atkinson said she thinks online is a great way for students to finally be able to get an education on their own time.

“I like online classes, because I think they give opportunity to students that wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain education, but I do think that there’s value in a mixed modality because some students learn far better being in a classroom setting.”

Watkins said that because next year will be the last year of her program, she will continue her education even if classes are online for the 2021/2022 school year. If it wasn’t her final year, she might have rethought continuing right away.

When asked if she thinks the price of online classes should be the same as in-person classes, she replied with a stern “No.”

Jager agreed with Watkins saying that if people are paying full tuition, they should expect the same level of education as in-person classes. Jager simply doesn’t feel that expectation is being met. If classes are going to be online next year, Jager said she would probably wait until classes are back in person to continue her education.

“I don’t know if I could do it—you know, return,” Jager said.

When asked what their overall thoughts on online classes were, this is what the two students had to say:

Watkins: I think online classes are trying to make the most of a really shitty situation. But I think it’s going fairly well; it could be going a lot worse. And it’s definitely not ideal, but I am happy that I can still be in school right now and moving forward with my degree. So, I’m grateful for online classes, even if I complain about them.

Jager: My overall thoughts on online classes are I like them–however, there are barriers that I would like to break down … and get through.

If you or someone you know is struggling with loneliness or any mental health-related issues, the VIU Counselling Services are available for distance counselling. Distance counselling for VIU students are available for free through VIU Counselling Services from Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 4 pm.

If you are experiencing a crisis or are in need of urgent help, you can reach out to the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888, or you can text the service (6–10 pm) at 250-800-3806.

It is never too late to reach out for help.

 

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