The Online Year

How to make the most out of your digital learning experience

Posted by Anushka Gupta on September 19th, 2020

As we start the 7th month of the Covid-19 pandemic, we hear about the precautions we should take and how best to stay safe every day. I’ll let the Dr. Henrys of your province take charge of these conversations. But the one thing that I can shed some light on is- tackling the challenges that come with digital learning.

I was in the middle of my second-year term 2 when the pandemic hit. Overnight, my midterms were rescheduled to be completed digitally and all of my in-person lectures and laboratories were moved online. There was a panic about international borders shutting down and many of my international friends took evacuation flights to get back home. In the matter of a few days, the world became a different place.

Since then, I managed to complete my second year online, started working remotely on a research position at the Vancouver School of Economics, and took asynchronous summer classes. Summing this up in one sentence makes it sound easy and do-able, right? But in reality, it was one big roller-coaster ride with its highs and lows. I went through a lot of resources and tried a lot of techniques to help me manage my time, create internal motivation and enjoy working remotely. Having gone through this experience, I was able to compile a list of foreseeable challenges of studying, working and having a completely online school year and how to overcome them.

Challenge 1: Online Classes and Different Time-zones

As I told you before, a lot of my international friends took evacuation flights to go home. And yes, online classes meant that you could attend them from anywhere in the world, but what they forgot to take into account was that they would now have to attend classes at 4 am! Not what they thought late nights in university would be. And if you think being a domestic student you’re safe, a fun fact for you: Did you know Canada has 6 different time zones? While the time-difference in Canada may not be that bad, it does tend to mess with your schedule. A 9 am class at UofT means a student residing in BC needs to be up and about at 6 am. And if you oversleep and miss your alarm, say good-bye to your participation grade! So, what can we do to overcome this?

  • Well the easiest advice to give, yet the most difficult to follow is: Make a schedule and follow it! Adjust your sleep cycle according to whether you have classes very early in the day or very late at night. The key is to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends! If you keep changing your bedtime, your body clock will never fully adjust and make you feel tired and drowsy all day. While taking short power naps during the day can energize you, make sure you get a restful night’s sleep and that you incorporate a healthy eating and exercise routine in your schedule.
  • If you know that some of your classes are at a very inconvenient time, there’s no harm in reaching out to your professors and your faculty to let them know and they would most likely accommodate!
  • Now, all of us either live with roommates or with family, and it’s quite possible to have varied schedules given that we might have to virtually live in different time-zones. Be considerate towards the people you live with. It is very important to have conversations about using common spaces, managing chores and most of all, making time to have some quality activities together.
  • Make a digital calendar on your phone and add your classes, assignment due dates, meetings and exercise times to it. You can even add events in different time-zones, and it will automatically adjust to yours!
  • If you are living in a different time zone than your school, then you can add 2 clocks to your phone - one for the time zone your classes are in and one for where you are:
    iPhone instructions
    Android instructions

Challenge 2 (a): Asynchronous Classes

Asynchronous classes could mean that your professor has pre-recorded content that they release during class time, they record their real-time online lectures which can be reviewed at a later date and time, or they might even have a combination of both. As convenient as they are, many times just having the knowledge that we can watch them later, we decide to skip lectures. If we don’t get back to it soon enough, we skip the next one as well as we didn’t get to watch the previous one! And as weeks pass, we never catch up and struggle before exams to finish understanding content. So how do we overcome this?

  • Fix a time in your schedule when you are supposed to watch lectures. Treat the timeslot you fixed as if you had class in real-time and make sure to follow it.

Challenge 2 (b) But I cannot follow a schedule!!

  • I know I have been talking about making a schedule as a solution to a lot of the challenges, but I also understand it is very difficult for some people to follow a rigid schedule that accounts for every minute of the day. Well, I have a solution for this as well! Instead, one can design a flexible schedule. That means you plan somethings that you will do at a fixed time during a day, for example: your classes, and you have the freedom to plan the rest of the day according to what you feel like doing.
Flexible vs Rigid Schedule

Challenge 3: I’m stuck on Problem 9! How do I complete my homework?!

One of the most common challenges all students face is not knowing who to ask if you get stuck in your homework or don’t understand some concept taught in class. “Should I ask my friends or is that plagiarism?” “Can I ask my TA (Teaching Assistants) or Professor this doubt or will they consider me dumb?” These are a few questions that pop up in our heads. And it was already hard enough when it was in person, how should we deal with it when classes are online?

  • First things first, it is OKAY to have doubts, it is OKAY to not understand concepts, and it is OKAY to ask questions to your friends and teachers.
  • Now, talking about plagiarism. Check your school’s policies and ask your professors about how best to ask for help with their course material.
  • Make study groups with friends and if you’re new to the class and haven’t made friends yet, then join a social media group. If there isn’t one, create one and ask your classmates to join.
  • Most college classes have TA office hours where you can ask questions, understand concepts and take help for homework. I cannot stress enough how wonderful yet underused this resource really is. You could also go to your Professor’s office hours in case you think you need more help.

Challenge 4 (a): I cannot meet my friends or anyone new because of the Pandemic

One of the biggest challenges that first years are going to face despite the efforts by many universities, is making friends online. While there is nothing that can replace the real in-person class experience of meeting new people, we can try to imitate that in a virtual setting.

  • You can join social media groups for your classes, faculty, clubs and reach out to people! You can set up video-calls with them and maybe you guys hit it off! This is a fun and safe way to get to make new friends
  • Stay in touch with your high school friends.
  • With your old and new friends alike, you can start having virtual parties. Plan virtual events like game nights (online escape rooms are a lot of fun!), movie nights, study nights and even online cook-offs.

Challenge 4 (b): But I’m an introvert, what can I do?

  • Reaching out to so many people and joining big groups can sound very intimidating to an introvert. But there are ways where one can take charge of the situation and make sure they are in a safe and comfortable spot. This is a big pro of being in a virtual setting for an introvert. You get to choose who you want to message, which groups you want to join, and a lot of times, you can find a niche group of people with similar interests and goals. That’s the beauty of making friends in University, you may even become best buddies with an extrovert!

Challenge 5: Extracurriculars and Clubs – How should I get involved?

After classes went online, it was inevitable that most clubs would have to transition online. And to give most organizations credit, they have been able to do so quite successfully over the summer. UBC has ‘Clubs Day’, which is now a virtual fair for student associations and clubs to reach out to incoming students and talk about how they’ve moved online. If you have a high school or university club you’re interested in, reach out to them and ask them about their transition journey and if they have any opportunities for you to get involved.

  • If you’re more interested in working in-person, you can find essential service volunteer positions in your city and work towards helping your community! You could also find a part-time position with a local business if they’re hiring. (Of course – have your mask on and keep your sanitizer close! And always follow the protocol released by the health officials.)
  • In case you want some part-time work experience, you can also reach out to your professors and other industry professionals to find a remote position. Check out the articles by Christopher Ng and Matthew Parmar on getting a research position and how to network with industry professionals.

Challenge 6: Home-Office-Class-Gym-Disco?

One problem that we all face when moving online and trying to follow social distancing measures is that we don’t have access to public spaces like libraries, study spots at university, gyms etc. This means your home needs to become a combination of all the spaces you need. If you don’t have a clear demarcation of what space in your home you want to use for what purpose, those fuzzy lines can trick your brain into being less productive. If you sleep where you work, and work where you sleep, it affects not just the quality of sleep but also the quality of work you produce. It’s a great idea to begin dividing up your physical space into designated areas for tasks. The 5 essential spaces you need to create are:

  1. A place where you sleep
  2. A place where you study and work
  3. A place where you exercise
  4. A place where you eat, and lastly
  5. A place where you relax

I watched this video a while back, but it explains very well how we can create these different demarcations in one room and why it is essential for your mental and physical wellbeing.

Challenge 7: I’m sick of being indoors, I don’t have motivation to do anything.

For many people being indoors can just get to them, and during a time like this, we cannot afford to be selfish and put ourselves and our community at risk. It’s always great to have something to look forward to, and that is what helps you create motivation to get through today. Since we cannot look forward to stepping out for work or classes, it can be difficult to feel the same drive and passion.

  • A great way to navigate feelings of distress of being in the same space is to incentivize yourself to create inner motivation by treating yourself to something you like every time you feel low, but still manage to finish your tasks for the day.
  • Practice self-care techniques that work for you. From yoga, to gardening, to playing with your pet, writing in your journal, or even talking to your friends, try something out that helps you feel better.

I hope some of these tips can help you have a better learning experience during this digital year. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]

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