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Online learning spurred by pandemic takes toll on university students and teachers in Montreal

Click to play video 'Online learning remains a challenge for CEGEP and university students and profs' Online learning remains a challenge for CEGEP and university students and profs
WATCH: Most Montreal CEGEPs and universities plan to continue online learning for the January semester. The constant screen time has caused stress and anxiety for students and teachers alike. Global’s Amanda Jelowicki takes a look at the toll online learning is taking – Nov 19, 2020

When Joe Bongiorno finishes his graduate diploma in journalism next spring, he won’t have set even one day in a classroom at Concordia University.

“To be honest it is difficult. For one you are staring at a screen for much more than you probably ever want to,” Bongiorno said. “You don’t have the same level of human contact that you would in a real classroom with real people.

“It’s very strange. It’s surreal.”

Bongiorna works full time as a teacher and studies for his diploma at night. He’s used to the online teaching and learning, and says he’s managed his stress well. But he says anxiety among his fellow students is extremely high as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues.

“Most of the people I speak to express in one way or another this feeling of intensified stress, extra pressures that did not exist beforehand,” he said.

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Read more: Quebec will not have to offer online learning to all students for now, court rules

It’s been almost nine months since university and CEGEP students started learning online full-time due to the health crisis. Many first-year students have struggled meeting new people, and forging social and academic connections has proven difficult.

Experts say while the effects vary from person to person, learning in isolation and staring at a screen all day, poses tremendous challenges.

“I only know what students tell me. I think many of them say they just feel overwhelmed that the kinds of supports that existed in their life aren’t as strong as they use to be,” said Concordia psychology professor Dr. William Bukowski. “The levels of uncertainties are much higher.”

It’s not just students feeling stressed. Teachers and professors say reverting to online learning hasn’t been easy.

“It’s required a whole rethink of the way I do my job,” said Aphrodite Salas, an assistant professor in the journalism department at Concordia. “A complete reconsideration of how I am doing things and that can also be mentally exhausting or intellectually exhausting.”

READ MORE: Quebec families reporting increased stress as second wave continues

Salas spent weeks preparing her courses for online learning. She said making the students feel they are part of the group was her biggest hurdle.

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“That has been the most challenging thing, to create that sense of community that comes normally and naturally in a classroom and try to replicate it online,” she said.

As tough as it has been for her, she is more concerned for her students.

“They are in really stressful situation,” Salas said. “That guides the way I deal with students now. I find now the job is 24/7. I know that if a student reaches out they really need to talk.”

She’s looking forward to the day when online learning ends, and she can talk to them face to face.