Midway through the first full term of online classes, university students are burning out

·3 min read

When Jacob Fraenkel chose Simon Fraser University to study economics, he pictured himself moving across the country to Metro Vancouver to explore new places and make new friends.

Instead, Fraenkel spends most of his day sitting in front of a computer in his bedroom in his Montreal home.

"You can't ever really fully immerse yourself into what you're doing in school because you're constantly surrounded with family and friends and, you know, the notifications on your phone and whatnot," Fraenkel said.

"You get a little bit motivated to get back into bed rather than back on a call "

Fraenkel is one of thousands of post-secondary students across Canada who have to study online this semester. Returning students have been at it since March, but for everyone this is their first full semester taking classes virtually.

For many of them, "Zoom University" is taking its toll on their mental and physical health.

Complaints range from feeling isolated, difficulty connecting with classmates and feeling overwhelmed by confounding technological systems that even their professors have trouble managing.

Unique challenges

Cheryl Washburn, director of counselling services at the University of British Columbia, says a lot of people are experiencing pandemic fatigue but young adults in university have unique challenges.

"Post-secondary comes at a time when you're at a developmental age and stage where there is a lot of change happening. And so that's challenging at the best of times," Washburn said.

"To have to contend with the COVID pandemic and lockdown and online learning on top of that is significant."

Washburn says students experience different types of stressors at different stages of their program.

Katherine Holland/CBC
Katherine Holland/CBC

For new students like Fraenkel, concerns may focus more on feeling isolated because they can't make new friends. For students in their last year, worries about job prospects may prevail.

There are also variations in students' home life that may interfere with their studies, she says, like having an appropriate work space and online connectivity.

Regardless of what stage they're at, Washburn recommends that students establish a healthy routine that includes eating well, getting enough sleep and finding ways to connect with others. For those who need it, the university now offers online counselling 24/7.

For some, online works well

Washburn says for some students online education is a blessing — it offers independence and allows them to create their own structure.

CBC News heard from several students who said online classes has saved them hours of commuting everyday so they can spend more time with friends and family.

For some, recorded lectures gives them the ability to review course material at their own pace. Others say tricks like listening to lectures at faster speeds have helped them become more efficient.

Osob Mohamed, president of SFU's Student Society, agrees that there are many benefits to online education — but there are also broader issues causing stress that universities can help students with.

Facebook/Osob Mohamed
Facebook/Osob Mohamed

"The university has kind of just been trying to push that the quality of learning and the university experience now is the exact same as it was pre-pandemic," Mohamed said. "And that is so far from the truth."

Mohamed says she has heard from many students in need of support and advocacy because professors aren't always understanding of their situations. Others are concerned about the potential privacy violations of some of the online proctoring software the university uses, which can access student computers and see into their bedrooms.

Others still would simply like to get in touch with their professors.

"With the lack of in-person office hours, some students are just straight up getting ghosted by their instructors," Mohamed said. "They're not hearing back from them for days, weeks at a time."

The biggest thing Mohamed would like to see from university officials is understanding that some students are really struggling because of the pandemic, and they need support.

"We'd like to see a more unified effort to make sure that students are being treated fairly and with compassion."