Welcome to the Spring 2020 Online School Term!

My "study from home" setup.

May 11, 2020

Hello, dear reader! It’s been yet another bit of a hiatus since my last blog post, but with the first day of online classes in the spring 2020 term, I’ve returned with this blog post! Today, I’ll be giving my initial thoughts on online schooling, and provide some words of encouragement as much for myself as for others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down in-person content at UWaterloo since mid-March, and classes moved online for the remainder of the Winter 2020 term (January to April), and all of the Spring 2020 term (May to August). For the Spring 2020 courses, professors have had a little more time to prepare for online learning compared to the sudden shunting of courses to online format for Winter 2020, so I’m hopeful that they’ll be of decent quality.

I woke up this morning with great excitement. None of the six classes I was enrolled in had posted any detailed information concerning the course before today, and I logged in to my various school accounts to be greeted with a slurry of course content: course outlines, video lectures, schedules, and a variety of other miscellaneous resources. In a typical school term, I’d have this content fed to me in a trickle across the first week, or at least few days. Today, though, everything was simply dumped, and I felt a little overwhelmed.

My first course of action was to take a look at one of the classes—specifically, CS 247: Software Design Principles. Luckily, I chose a course with a relatively gentle introduction. The content that had been posted only spanned the first week, and the assigned tasks for the first week were simply to watch some pre-recorded video lectures, order some textbooks, and read the course outline. I went through the tasks without encountering much resistance, and our professor turned out to be quite entertaining, even when limited by the lack of student interaction.

The next course I looked at was my elective: ENGL 292, Rhetorical Theory and Criticism. Originally, I’d selected the elective PHIL 226: Biomedical Ethics, which I thought would be quite interesting and relevant given the pandemic. Unfortunately, PHIL 226 was cancelled, and I chose ENGL 292 to get a little diversity in my otherwise tech-heavy courses. By the looks of it, ENGL 292 had an existing online offering, so was built with remote learning in mind from the start. I read through the outline, wrote and posted a short introduction, and moved on.

English 292 is probably the most polished online learning experience I have this term, but the online offering did lack one major component: in-person interaction. The other English course I’ve taken at UWaterloo was the only university course which had significant discussions and interaction among a smaller group of students during lectures, and I greatly enjoyed that aspect of the course. Nonetheless, I’m confident the course will still be a breath of fresh air, and a chance to energize my writing!

I decided to only look at half of my courses today, emulating the alternating lectures normally scheduled on Mondays and Tuesdays of the week, and also making sure not to overwork myself this first day. My last class of the day was therefore MATH 239, Introduction to Combinatorics (much closer, compared to English, to what the average Software Engineering class plan looks like). The introductory video was fairly relaxed, with five different professors taking the stage in coordinating the course and speaking a bit about each of their backgrounds.

When I got to the lecture content, things became very difficult, very quickly. I’d gotten some idea that there would be some math-problem related content appearing right away, based on the way the official discussion forum for the class had been lighting up all morning with questions.

The first lecture video was twenty minutes long, and moved very, very quickly. A normal lecture’s cadence is slower than a video lecture, since students interject with questions, and a professor might pause to write out formulae or bring up some reference material. The way the MATH 239 lecture was structured was the opposite of that. Our professor stormed through the content with the efficiency of a final exam review session in which all the students already understood the concepts and weren’t asking any questions.

The twenty-minute-long lecture commanded close to an hour of my attention and a post on the discussion forum just to come to an initial understanding of what was going on.

After that experience, I was a little nervous to continue, and given that the time was quickly approaching the end of a regular workday, I called it a first day. No point in burning out this early!

One of my concerns in the online term is working for too long and burning out. In a normal term, the schedule of lectures provides what instructors deem is an appropriate pace for students to study the course at. When the schedule was taken away, I found that I had no idea what I was supposed to accomplish on this first day, since lectures were posted far faster I could reasonably complete. I imagine it would be easy to continue working long into the evening, since there’s no easy point to stop at, whereas a normal term has a natural stopping point: where the instructor left off at the last lecture.

In addition, there aren’t any reminders of due dates in lectures anymore, and I’ll have to keep track of when everything needs to be handed in by myself. This, combined with the lack of a strict lecture schedule for most classes, means I’ll have to keep a judicious schedule myself. I’ve set up a spreadsheet tracking what I plan to get done each day. It’s a very new process for me, and will probably need quite a bit of refinement, but I believe I can pull it off.

I was working from home for the past month and a half, and that prepared me for working long hours without any in-person supervision. Based on this first day of school, the feeling of working from home hasn’t really changed—it’s the same mix of feeling very distant from fellow students/co-workers, and a high flexibility of schedule. It takes a certain amount of discipline to work in front of a screen for eight hours a day, and I’m glad that working from home allowed me to establish that habit before school started.

An enterprising classmate which I am very grateful for set up a Discord server for our Software Engineering class, which has many features over the Messenger chat group we formerly used. This is one of the pillars set up to replace the variety of social interactions which would pull our class together in a regular term. I dropped into a chat room on the server today, and talked briefly with some classmates who I hadn’t spoken to since the last school term. I’m really glad we have this platform up for this online term! I imagine there will be some people who don’t participate, and I likely won’t have a chance to talk with them, but even in a regular term, there are some people who don’t attend lectures and who I won’t meet until the final exam.

It’s not all bad, this online term. I’m almost certain there will be some rough spots, and I will miss the many, many great parts of student life on campus. In one sense, I feel robbed of experiences. University life is something I greatly enjoy, and to miss an entire term of my short four years here is saddening.

However, this online term is an entirely novel experience to go through as well. This is probably the first time in history where a pandemic has shut down schools so thoroughly, but sufficient technology exists for the majority of classes to migrate online in a short timeframe and for students to access those classes. We are part of a trial run of online education on a never-before-seen scale, and the courses will have some leeway and understanding of the difficulties we face. It’s a challenge of our ability to learn independently, and once we prevail, we’ll have proven we’re capable of the flexibility to learn anything, from anywhere.

It’ll be less fun. It’ll be less exciting. It’ll be more work. But I think this Spring 2020 term will be one that will have us talking for a long time yet.

As always, thanks for reading, dear reader! May you take care in these interesting, interesting, interesting times.

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