In mid-March, University of Toronto faculty and students underwent an unprecedented transition to exclusively online education for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As the spring went on, it became clear that 2020 Summer semester and the 2020-2021 academic year at the UofT would primarily occur online for its faculty and students. The Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies (ATCJS) quickly began working to reconfigure our courses to provide our students with the best academic experience in an uncertain time.
As part of the ATCJS’ strategic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Director of the ATCJS, Professor Anna Shternshis, supervised the creation and distribution of a survey regarding online learning for undergraduate students in humanities and social sciences summer courses. Kiera Farrell-Beaulieu, a research assistant of Professor Shternshis and undergraduate student at UofT, designed a survey to collect information regarding which synchronous and asynchronous class activities positively and/or negatively contributed to the overall learning experience.
The survey received responses from 120 students, 70% of whom self-identified as humanities students, with the opportunity to engage with multiple choice and short-answer prompts. Below, is a summary of its findings:
- There was significant division regarding the preference of synchronous versus asynchronous lectures. The former provides structure resembling a ‘normal’ semester, while the latter provides flexibility to accommodate a university course load with the unpredictability of studying from home during a pandemic.
- Despite differences in opinion, most students who participated in the narrative section of the survey suggested the recording of synchronous lectures. Recording synchronous lectures was agreed to be a happy medium when attempting to accommodate students’ different schedules, in addition to providing a powerful resource when reviewing for exams.
- Synchronous course activities were the most positively reviewed feature of online learning; e.g. student feedback overwhelmingly enjoyed live class discussion of course material, such as texts and visual medias, that had been distributed pre-lecture.
- The survey did not provide definitive answers on effectiveness of asynchronous activities, such as discussion boards. Students seem to be divided on the asynchronous delivery method; e.g. 36.7% of students liked discussion boards, whereas 29.1% did not. A reasonable assumption about the variation of answers lies in the nature of the course material, in turn impacting the ideal delivery method of content.
- Many students who liked discussions boards also advocated for the chat feature noting that it reduced their participation anxiety; they noted that not having to speak in front of a large group of people gave them a surprising confidence boost and a more equitable sense of participation in the course.
- Students also advocated for a 24-hour window for taking an exam; time zones and busy, unsuitable daytime home environments for test-taking were among some of the reasons why students believe online courses should have a flexible time slot in which they can open their exam.
- A common theme throughout the survey was students expressing appreciation for the ability to study during a global pandemic. They recognized the already incredible privilege to have an education, continuing that they were humbled by the ability to study given the global situation.
For those interested in the full report, it is available here: Online student experience - Findings.pdf (Farrell-Beaulieu).