When will we be back in person? What will the transition from online to in person look like? Once in person, should assessments continue to be online? What have my students learned while being online? In the summer of 2021, as I considered the 2021-2022 academic year, I found myself with more uncertainties than in March 2020.
Following a sea of conflicting and at times last-minute communications from our administrators, my colleagues and I felt that we might be back on campus for the fall 2021 term. However, there was a looming possibility of an overnight switch to online instruction, and we were skeptical about preparing for in-person delivery.
The fall came, and a good portion of Canadian postsecondary institutions were in person, only to be switched to online later. Moving a course online is a large change and presents a number of difficulties. Instructors are forced to adjust assessment formats, modify lectures, and rework course expectations. On the flipside, students need to figure out their living arrangements, recalibrate their expectations, attend to personal affairs, family and social lives, and rethink their learning strategies.
As word broke that postsecondary institutions would definitely be in person by the winter 2022 term (but with no clear date specified), I reminded my students that the transition from online to in person would come with its own challenges, ranging from academic, to mental, to physical. Being static for two years, our bodies needed once again to feel the physical strain of a commute to school, or the walk from one campus building to another (or even just a couple of flights of stairs!) to catch the next class.
Many students did not heed my advice to move and be active; the toll became apparent after the first week back in person. The fun of online was over. The physical presence of being on campus depleted students’ energy, which, in turn, lowered their motivation and engagement. In spite of my encouraging words and weekly attempts to reach out, the in-person attendance dwindled week by week. Students posted fewer questions on the class discussion forum and rarely showed up to my office hours.
I had already decided to keep online tests, making my students’ (and my own!) health a priority (though I am sure some readers out there are screaming, “the cheating!”). I was not ready for traditional pre-COVID routines: the same test, written at the same time by a few hundred (or a thousand) students in classrooms. As well, cognizant of the history of the course delivery mode changes, I wanted to avoid debates with students about whether or not in-person assessments without aids are harder than online assessments with aids and their notes.
In April 2022, the final examinations were administered in person as directed by my university. Traditionally, the use of calculators and other resources during a mathematics final examination is not allowed. The ramifications of this policy were painfully evident. In many instances, my second-year students struggled with foundational ideas (e.g., incorrectly graphing a function that is taught in high school, or inappropriately rounding a number). I attribute this to their uncritical use of resources when preparing for, and writing, online assessments.
Relying on “external” sources of information and solutions to problems, students did not learn much, nor did they understand what it takes to solve a problem. In mathematics, often, it is not about the final answer, but rather it is the journey that counts, and many of them missed this. Going forward, these students will have to find ways to prepare themselves adequately for in-person assessments, including bridging background mathematics knowledge and reasoning gaps.
On the upside, talking informally to some of my students, I learned that they studied more, knowing about the restrictions on the use of resources during in-person assessments – music to any educator’s ears! As evidence, I noticed an uptick in students’ participation in final examination preparation sessions held outside of class time.
Other students enjoyed being back in person, which I believe helped improve their mental health and reduced their feelings of isolation. One of my students bravely admitted that if they felt that they did poorly on a test when in person, they would leave the testing room and talk to their peers. However, after an online test, they were forced to agonize alone in their own bubble.
The effects of the past two years’ educational disruption, illustrated through these snapshots, will last a few years, even though we are back in person. The undoing of online learning will be a steep learning curve and a painful process for both educators and students to return to some kind of pre-COVID “normal.”
Andie Burazin is an assistant professor, teaching stream, at the University of Toronto Mississauga.