Four weeks ago this blog was published. After the adrenaline of publishing a website wore off, I realized that I still missed the most important thing: the content. I made a list of topic ideas for my first post. To name a few: how to start a website, book response to [insert book title], how gratefulness transformed my life. All good ideas, but if (for some odd reason) you skipped over the title of this article, you’ll see that I decided to write about school.
It’s as simple as (1) I’m a student (2) I know many people who are students (3) all us students are about to embark on an unprecedented adventure (or catastrophe!). For the first time ever, the 2020 fall term will commence full-time school ONLINE. It’s a blessing for those who hated long commutes to campus, but a nightmare for the majority who can’t imagine sitting in front of their computer morning to night.
I asked my followers on Instagram about their concerns regarding the upcoming semester. Here are a few that were mentioned:
In case you didn’t know, I’m a fourth year student at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), I’ve volunteered as a supplemental instruction leader, I’m currently a peer mentor with UTM Accessibility Services (which means I provide academic coaching and social support), and most of all, I spent this past summer completing online courses. I also did some research beforehand, to see what other students gave as advice, and built off based on what works for me.
In addition to the 5 tips on how to prepare for online school, I created a FREE checklist (in PDF download format) that you can use to make sure you have everything you need before the semester begins. You’ll find it at the bottom of the article.
Tip #1: Familiarize yourself with apps and purchase required texts
With shipping delays during this pandemic, it might be helpful to purchase required texts in advance. You could fall behind in your class if your textbook arrives two weeks into the semester. If you don’t want to buy brand new textbooks, try finding a textbook exchange group (usually on Facebook) for your school.
It’ll also be helpful if you’re familiarized with the online learning apps before class begins, especially if you know you’re not tech savvy. The main functions you’ll be using in the class are audio, video, and the chat function. My school uses Blackboard Collaborate for lectures, and Zoom for meetings and events. Expect to use the “raise hand” function and breakout groups. If you don’t have access to the apps beforehand, you can always watch tutorials on Youtube, or ask a friend for help. And install Google Chrome because most apps function better on there.
Tip #2: Stay up-to-date with announcements
Many professors are still figuring things out so expect to receive updates about how the online course will run, and changes along the way. One of my professors announced weeks in advance that he preferred for us to use our audio and video during online synchronous sessions. This is something you might want to know unless you’re cool with showing up in your pajamas. Later in the semester, he switched to audio only.
It’s also helpful to stay up-to-date because you’ll know about events and opportunities to get involved. Last March, I had the opportunity to interview five graduating students and most of them emphasized the importance of making connections during your university experience. To quote Quianna Lim, one of the graduating students, “That is what’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life.” Just because we’ll be physically isolated doesn’t mean we can’t still connect.
Practical tip: follow your school’s social media platforms. Since first year, I’ve kept twitter on my phone just to get notifications from my Office of Registrar. Without even needing to check my email, I was the first to know whenever an important deadline approached. The same goes for clubs and societies. Try following your school’s centre for student engagement, office of registrar, and clubs related to your program.
Tip #3: Prepare an organization system
This will look different for everyone depending on your program of study, lifestyle, and preferences. You’re just going to have to figure out what works for you and set boundaries accordingly. But here are five things to think about:
This is what I do. Maybe you’ll find one of these helpful:
Many Youtubers and bloggers say to “have a strict schedule,” but I’d say “have a set guideline.” Lastly, try to keep things simple! And remember that you don’t need to spend money to stay organized.
Tip #4: Find a study buddy
Popular opinion: “I study better alone.” This might’ve been true, once upon a time, when studying at a bubble tea shop really meant you and your friends spent three hours laughing at memes, then one hour figuring out what your project was actually about. But one of the worst things about the pandemic, and now online school, is the isolation.
Relying on a friend can help you succeed in all aspects of your life (I should also say, choose your friend wisely. Someone who’s working towards the same destination as you). You guys will be in it together. This doesn’t mean you have to study together every day. One day it might look like studying together, another day it might be a simple check-in. I worked with my friends through video calls before, and found that their virtual presence kept me motivated to work rather than check my phone (there’s no need to see what my friends are doing when they’re literally on the call with me).
Practical tip: find your school’s student-run Facebook page to connect with classmates. It’ll be helpful if your “study buddy” is from your program/class because you both can work through course material together. Find out if your school offers you a premium Zoom account that you can use to host calls/study sessions with friends.
Tip #5: Be patient with yourself and your professors
Many people say “start off your day on a good note” but I just want to add on, “but it’s okay if you don’t.” Sometimes we get so stuck in our routines that if we diverge from them one day, it feels like nothing else can go right. Some days you’re going to be able to stretch, eat breakfast, then start class. Other days you might roll out of bed right when class starts (this was me, too many times to count). Some days you might be super focused, other days you’ll feel totally unmotivated. Everyday has its trials. Give yourself room to breath, permission to make mistakes, and the opportunity to learn along the way.
Similarly, your professors are doing the best they can (thank you cousin Jonathan for this reminder). Expect technical difficulties, waiting periods, awkward silences, and poor wifi connections. In one of my online classes, I was in the middle of sharing my thoughts on the reading when my professor was suddenly kicked out of the call. Besides the prof, I was the only one with my video on (because I was the one talking). The class was silent and all I said was, “uhhh now what?” Thankfully, my professor came back. He apologized profusely, I had to repeat what I was sharing, then we continued on with the class like usual. Expect things to go unexpectedly.
Practical tip: to help the class run smoothly, give your professors technical support if you can see that they are struggling. One of my professors needed us to remind him how to use screen sharing almost every lecture. Same with your classmates who might have trouble connecting their audio or video. And speak up if you can’t hear when someone is speaking, because it’s most likely that you’re not the only one.
Since it’s my last year of undergrad, I am bummed that most of it will be spent at home on my computer. On the other hand, I’m also grateful that one day I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren that their grandmother lived through a pandemic and still had an amazing senior year. Despite the things I wished were different, despite my fears of what might go wrong, I’m stepping into this new semester choosing to make the most of whatever comes my way.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Disclaimer: Everything in this article is based on my personal experience and not affiliated with the University of Toronto Mississauga.
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Elisa is a Vietnamese-Canadian writer and editor. Her work focuses on familial love, self-discovery, and immigrant experiences.