Student Life, The Viewpoint

Student perspectives on virtual and in-person learning

After nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, opinions on the merits of online versus in-person learning tend to be passionate. Having experienced virtual learning for multiple semesters, students have adapted to different methods of schooling. With public health conditions once again necessitating online school, McGill’s return to a virtual teaching format has reignited the debate about how students learn best. 

For certain music students, like Daniel Marmer, U0 Music, it’s difficult to study a subject like jazz online, because the experience of practicing an instrument in person is unmatched. Practicing in ensemble format has been put on pause until Jan. 24.

“Playing with other musicians is the most important part of learning and helps you develop the quickest,” Marmer said. “Jazz is all about conversing with the musicians you’re playing with, reacting to them and expressing yourself, and that can’t be done when you’re not playing with them live.”

Students in all faculties may have experience with other disadvantages of online learning, including the extra stress of having internet issues for reasons out of one’s control, the difficulty of forming meaningful bonds between instructors and students, and more. Such impediments of virtual learning have proven to be significant. A survey revealed that 51 per cent of Quebec university students reported higher levels of psychological distress during the Fall 2020 semester––which was remote due to the pandemic––and 56 per cent of students found online courses as a principal stressor for their diminished mental health.

Despite these drawbacks, one obvious benefit of online school is that it curbs the spread of COVID-19. This becomes especially crucial with the airborne and highly transmissible Omicron variant. In December 2021, a petition urging for final exams to be moved online circulated around the McGill community and received upwards of 3,200 signatures. The petition cited safety concerns about rising COVID-19 cases and alleged a lack of attention paid by the university toward ensuring safe and comfortable examination environments. With rising COVID-19 cases in Quebec, virtual learning allows students to earn their credits with greater reassurance for personal and communal safety. 

There’s also the practical aspect of not having to commute all the way to campus for class—an inconvenience that Arantza Fernandez, U3 Arts, is grateful to be relieved of.

“I like online learning because it gives me control of what to do with my time,” Fernandez said in an interview with the Tribune. “I can choose how to spend [my time] or how to organize [my day] without taking into account transportation [to campus].”

Virtual learning has also brought students more accessible modes of learning, including recorded lectures, easier organization of work with all material in one place, scheduling flexibility, and more. 

“I find with online classes I enjoy having all of the lectures recorded for me to go back to if I didn’t understand something or if I need to pause the video to finish taking my notes,” said Emma Smith, U0 Arts. “Online classes [also] teach you to be accountable for yourself and to achieve your work goals.”

For students who find it difficult or nerve-wracking to participate during in-person classes, engaging in a discussion over Zoom can be less intimidating. 

“I feel calmer and more confident when I’m just alone in my room, talking,” Gabby Orle, U2 Arts, told the Tribune. “It doesn’t feel as scary as when I’m in a room and everybody is physically looking at me.” 

After more than two years of the pandemic, each student—each with unique circumstances—has had their own experiences with virtual and in-person learning, making this a highly nuanced debate.

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