Zoom fatigue, social disconnection: With 'nothing to compare' to, first years adjust to university online

In September, UBC began its biggest experiment in online learning so far. One month into the school year, Zoom classes are in session, Canvas modules show midterms approaching and for the most part, UBC students are coping.

For first-year students, UBC via Zoom is the only university experience they know.

Janice Suhardja, a first year in the Faculty of Arts, began her university experience with a Zoom orientation at 6 a.m. Jakarta time. This irregular schedule has since become routine.

“Being a first year helps a lot, just because we don’t have anything to compare it to,” she said. Suhardja, who is attending UBC from her home in Indonesia, said the irregular hours have gotten easier.

Although the switch from classroom to video call feels like a shock, online learning is nothing new, according to Marina Milner-Bolotin, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education.

“My research focuses on teaching science with technology, so way before [COVID-19] I've been teaching online,” said Milner-Bolotin.

When the pandemic hit, UBC moved to implement the online learning infrastructure Milner-Bolotin had been using for years to teach future science teachers.

“UBC did an amazing job investing into teachers learning how to teach online,” said Milner-Bolotin. Hiring new staff, troubleshooting technology, holding teacher trainings — successful online education requires upfront investment, and UBC delivered, she said.

Still, Milner-Bolotin emphasized the extra work that goes into online teaching: from completely redesigning science curriculums to function without in-class labs, to experimenting with new ways of facilitating class discussions, many faculty members are working up to 40 hours unpaid overtime.

“A lot of professors are super accommodating,” said first-year arts student Diane Huang, who is attending UBC from nearby Coquitlam. “I felt like it was a pretty good transition. Everything started out slow and Canvas isn't too hard to use.”

Distance learning has societal benefits beyond pandemic public safety. Milner-Bolotin emphasized that removing the barrier of distance could make education more accessible than ever. Although tuition remains the same for online courses, students living at home are saving money on rent and commuting, potentially alleviating some students’ financial burdens.

“Being in online learning requires a different set of skills, but it also opens unimaginable opportunities,” said Milner-Bolotin. “And it forced older faculty to learn new technologies, which is a good thing.”

The skill of learning virtually takes time to develop and plays to some strengths over others. Huang noted that class discussions via chat can help shyer people to express themselves in a way an in-person presentation might make difficult.

”[Chat discussion] flows a lot better, even more so than [I imagine it would] in-person, because people are less inhibited,” said Huang.

Social issues persist

The first years The Ubyssey spoke to reported a persisting issue with making social connections online.

“It’s hard to know who these people are beyond the little box on the screen,” said Huang.

Time zones make the feeling of disconnection worse. First-year Shreya Begjam notes the additional isolation of being awake in Zoom classes while the rest of the world is asleep. Begjam lives in India, and although she is making friends, she still feels out of step with the UBC community.

“I feel like I'm missing out because all my friends attend study sessions [and club meetings] on Zoom that are all at night while I'm sleeping,” said Begjam.

After a full day of Zoom class, Begjam reported not having the energy for another hour of a club meeting. Five weeks into the term, this Zoom exhaustion has only increased.

“The screentime hasn’t gotten easier because you're still exposed to the same amount, even more because of assignments,” said Bejgam. “That’s problematic for me because I'm scared it’ll harm my vision and I have headaches a lot.”

Of course, students and faculty agreed that it’s not just the online learning that’s making school harder — it’s the global pandemic. In a recent survey, 73 per cent of surveyed faculty reported that COVID-related anxiety, sadness and inability to concentrate negatively impacted their work.

“We have a lot of background stress right now,” said Milner-Bolotin. “So saying that online education is not as good as before, of course it’s not as good as before. But I think a lot of us will learn new skills. We’ll feel more comfortable connecting with people online.”