Montreal students worry about quality of online classes for fall semester

Students in Montreal are asking schools to lower tuition rates, following several university announcements that most courses will be delivered online for the fall semester.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McGill University, l’Université Laval and l’Université de Montréal announced that students will do most of their learning from home this fall. 

An online semester isn’t all that surprising given the health crisis, but students have lots of questions. 

“It’s clear that the quality of education won’t be the same,” said Adam Gwiazda-Amsel, the external vice-president of McGill’s student association. 

Online classes will likely accommodate more students than in-person ones, and McGill, much like other universities, isn’t ready to offer education from a distance, Gwiazda-Amsel said. He questions how music performance lessons, for example, could possibly be of the same quality if they're delivered online. 

And then there’s the question of whether students are paying to get ‘a grade’ or to get an actual education, he said. 

Students have been frustrated with online courses since the start of the pandemic – there’s not as much interaction with professors, nor is there as much between them, Gwiazda-Amsel said. 

“The teachers aren’t trained for this and students didn’t sign up for this.” 

He thinks it’s possible that the situation will be better by the time fall rolls around, because professors won’t be thrown into online teaching with no warning. But there are also concerns about students who need extra resources to succeed. 

“It’s already hard for them,” Gwiazda-Amsel said, adding that online courses will likely be a barrier in their ability to learn. “McGill still hasn’t clearly stated what they’re going to do for them.” 

At Concordia University, the biggest concern is for international students because they pay tons more in tuition, said Christopher Kalafatidis, the Concordia Student Union’s general coordinator. He said they’ll be paying higher prices for something that doesn’t have the same value. 

But local students are also questioning the value of remote learning. 

“They’re also losing a lot,” Kalafatidis said. When it comes to the idea of lowering tuition, the CSU hasn’t yet taken an official position, as Concordia still hasn’t confirmed how the fall semester will play out. 

Students have taken to forums to voice their concerns. 

“It’s just horrible. No one wants to pay as much to simply see teacher’s notes on screen,” said a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in management. 

Others want to join an initiative to reduce tuition “for this new education of terrible quality.” Many have said they’re less motivated to learn if the experience is entirely on-screen. 

A petition was launched to lower tuition at Concordia. On Thursday, it had received nearly 4,000 signatures. 

The Quebec student union still hasn’t taken an official position on the issue, either, but president Philippe LeBel said the transition to online learning wasn’t great during the spring semester. 

“The quality of education sort of suffered,” he said. “We hope that they’ll be better prepared for the fall.” 

Despite no official stance being taken by student groups when it comes to lowering tuition, several agree on asking their schools for reduced costs associated to student activities and sports facilities that won’t be used during a remote semester. 

MENTAL HEALTH

The student union at UdeM is preoccupied with something other than tuition: students’ mental health. 

They want to make sure the school supports students with extra resources so no one suffers, given that isolation and online courses may exacerbate loneliness and psychological distress. 

“This is our main concern,” said the association’s general secretary, Sandrine Desforges. 

An online semester means that new students will have no contact with their peers. The association is looking to work with UdeM to implement solutions, like they did over the spring. 

They say students need mental health support, but also technological support. During the spring, a 24-hour helpline and remote psychological consultations were made available for students. 

The association is also asking for flexibility for students, especially those who have young children or limited access to the internet. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020. 

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