Learning in the time of lockdown

McGill students on studying and staying connected during a socially distant Winter semester

For generations to come, 2020 will be remembered as the year an invisible virus brought the world to its knees.

But as challenging as the pandemic lockdown has been, it’s also shone a light on the incredible resilience, ingenuity and community spirit of people all around the globe. And the McGill community is no exception.

In the space of just two weeks, following the Quebec government’s announcement of a province-wide shutdown, the University managed to successfully transition more than 2,000 courses to a remote learning format—with students quick to adapt.

Making the best of a challenging situation

Jacob Tian is a first-year international student from Shanghai working towards a BSc in Statistics and Computer Science at McGill. He had hoped to return home to lock down with his family. But when international flights were cancelled in early March and he had to stay in Montreal, he decided to make the best of the situation—and found he actually enjoyed the remote learning experience.

“It allowed me to experiment with different learning approaches. Everything used to be so crammed, but it gave us time to read a textbook before every single lecture, which gave me more confidence,” he remembers.

While he missed the in-person experience and spending time with friends—which he’ll continue to miss in the Fall semester when classes will also be delivered off-campus—Jacob found a lot of positives in the remote learning experience.

“I think there are lots of benefits, like more flexibility and less stress. It definitely took some of the stress of exams away as we were given 72 hours for what would have been a three-hour exam,” he says. “I also like that I can learn from the comfort of home, and save time and money commuting to campus.”

Staying engaged and on track

One of the things that made the transition easier for Jacob was that his professors were well prepared, making efforts to ensure students were engaged as much as possible.

“Some of our Math profs spent time writing lecture notes before classes, so we could go through them and have a detailed idea of what was coming up,” he notes. “Another one set up a whiteboard in his house to recreate the classroom experience.”

Another thing that helped, he says, is that all classes were recorded, so students could listen back to lectures or catch up if they were unable to attend a live class on Zoom.

Kuvish Bussawah, originally from the Republic of Mauritius and now studying Mechanical Engineering in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering, agrees that recorded lectures, coupled with the commitment of professors and staff, made completing the Winter semester much easier.

“Not everyone has the same learning curve. Some people may need to read notes a few times to grasp the concept. So recorded lectures really help because you can review the videos whenever you need.”

“I know every faculty is working hard to give as much of their time to make sure students stay engaged and still fulfill their degrees,” he adds.

Some courses harder to adapt than others

For Geneviève Gates-Panneton, a Soprano singer and second-year bachelor’s student at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, the transition to remote learning was especially challenging as most of her program involves practicing and performing with fellow musicians—an impossible task when group gatherings are off the table.

“All of our rehearsals, performance classes and concerts were cancelled from one day to the next and that’s the majority of what we do, so that was pretty intense and challenging.”

She explains that playing as an ensemble doesn’t work as well on online platforms like Zoom as the sound quality is lacking and there’s always a delay.

But she appreciates that Professor Julie Cumming, who teaches Baroque Opera (MUHL 377) worked hard to ensure the listening portion of the class could continue.

“When there were listenings, she showed us the score with Zoom’s screen sharing option, so we learned to hear with our eyes.”

In terms of performing, Geneviève and her classmates found ways to adapt and continue making music.

“So much of music learning is playing together,” she says. “But one thing lots of people are doing is to film their parts individually and then mix them together. It’s nice to see how people are still finding ways to make music for themselves and others.”

Keeping the community connected through music

Kuvish, also passionate about music and student engagement, works as Head Manager of OAP (Open Air Pub), an Engineering Undergraduate Society initiative started in the 1980s.

Twice a year, to celebrate the end of the Winter semester and the start of the Fall term, the student-run group hosts an on-campus music festival that is one of the most popular events on the McGill calendar—an opportunity to showcase McGill talent and for students to come together over music while raising money for a good cause.

“OAP is a big part of the McGill experience. It’s all about being there for students, serving cheap food and beers and good music,” Kuvish explains.

“For the pandemic, we had to adapt,” he adds. “It’s such a monumental part of what people cherish at McGill and we didn’t want to take that away. We wanted to reassure students that we’re still here with you and we’ll adapt, whatever the situation.”

Determined to keep things running this year, OAP live-streamed the event on YouTube over three days, with more than 20 artists from McGill, Montreal and around the world playing music of all genres live from their living rooms. The event was free to join and open to both McGillians and the general public.

The group held a raffle with prizes and set up a donation link, managing to raise $4,500 for President’s Choice Children’s Charity, which is working right now to provide nutritious food to vulnerable children in Montreal missing school-based hunger programs because of the crisis. The OAP team also created a sidebar for people to donate to the artists who volunteered their time and have been heavily impacted by the shutdown.

“The money we raised was way beyond what we expected,” Kuvish says. “People care about the event and donated out of pure love, which we really appreciated. It really shows how much they value the OAP experience.”

A remote but eventful Fall

OAP is slated to go ahead remotely to kick off the Fall semester. And Kuvish wants to reassure students joining or returning to McGill in September that the entire student body is working to make sure extracurricular events like these continue.

“We’re all doing our best to provide that McGill experience. We cherish what we’ve experienced ourselves and want to offer other students the same. Events may be modified—but they will happen.”

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