Commentary, Opinion

Students deserve to choose distance learning after the pandemic ends

The recent announcement that the Fall 2020 semester will take place primarily through remote instruction was jarring news to students who have already experienced significant disruptions to their academic routines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the switch to distance learning has been challenging for some programs, there are undeniable benefits to an online education format. Even after the transition back to in-person classes, McGill should maintain distance learning as an option whenever possible. 

Giving students the choice to learn online would make McGill more accessible to those who do not live near campus. The prices of housing and transportation can be a barrier to students attending McGill since, in addition to tuition, students in Montreal pay some of the highest rent in Canada. The option to learn online can also make a difference for students who would otherwise commute. This opportunity to choose would be most important during the winter, since McGill’s administration is often reluctant to cancel classes due to extreme weather. For instance, when the city was faced with 40 centimetres of snow in February this year, McGill simply urged students to be cautious when coming to campus and requested that professors be lenient about absences. The university can be more considerate of students facing treacherous storm conditions by giving them the choice to learn remotely instead. For a university that prides itself on accessibility and inclusivity, a complete return to in-person education with no option for online learning will be a disservice to present and future students who do not live near campus.

During the pandemic, some students have found online learning to be more conducive to learning than traditional education. Students can watch lectures at their own pace and stop recordings for more time to process the information. Some have raised concerns about cheating, but cheating could be prevented if professors adapt exams to the new medium. If more essay-based exams are introduced, it would allow students to exercise critical thinking skills and applied knowledge, rather than merely memorizing facts. In this manner, remote assessments would require students to engage with the material on a deeper level.

Admittedly, some types of courses are more suited to online learning than others. Remote laboratory courses, for example, will be challenging, but McGill plans to account for this next semester through advanced simulations that better recreate the laboratory experience. Some online courses may remain imperfect alternatives, but the past few months have proven that it is possible for lecture-based courses to be available online in their entirety. Professors could record lectures and post them on myCourses, and conferences and office hours could be offered both in-person and online. There would be little change in the quality of education that students receive through online lecture courses. 

Despite the success of remote instruction, many students have questioned McGill’s decision to maintain the same tuition prices for online classes as in-person ones, since many in-person services are currently unavailable. This attitude is understandable, but it overlooks the fact that while distance learning may be easier for some students, it is also more difficult for professors and administrators to offer. The time and effort that employees spend adapting their curriculums and services to a new format requires adequate compensation, which would financially account for the services that students would not be able to use while studying remotely. If students can choose their preferred method of study, it would enable them to decide between the benefits and drawbacks of each option for their personal learning styles. With tuition remaining the same, they could use online or in-person services as needed.

COVID-19 has presented McGill with a crucial opportunity. The university can draw positivity from this negative situation by rebuilding McGill as a more equitable institution once its campuses reopen. Now that McGill has proven able to offer many of its courses remotely, students deserve a choice to study either in-person or online.

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