McMaster University students struggle through 'overwhelming' first day during COVID-19

McMaster University students are struggling to meet the challenges of learning in an almost exclusively online environment.

'The wifi on both ends was not great, I couldn't even understand what my prof was saying'

McMaster University students are struggling to meet the challenges of learning in an almost exclusively online environment. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

After four years of school, Shyam Patel thought he figured out how to manage academic pressures at McMaster University — then COVID-19 changed everything.

"I feel like I'm in first year all over again," the commerce student told CBC after his first class of the fall semester.

"It's a completely different learning experience."

He is one of many students trying to navigate through an almost exclusively online term during the pandemic.

Instead of reuniting with friends and familiar faces, or sitting in a lecture hall and shaking hands with a new professor, Patel and others are forced to try and achieve the same success remotely.

It hasn't been easy for educators either.

"The transition for summer courses ... the professors didn't have the time to truly organize a platform and figure out how to use the software and programs," he explained.

"Some of my professors recorded lectures, some did live-lectures and some got fed up and used the school portal."

This semester, Patel says, the technical difficulties are compounded by different professors using different software to host lectures.

Patel said many students took to social media to vent and post memes after some first-year chemistry students were unable to get access to a lecture.

"A large group of chemistry students was initially unable to access a lecture because of a technical problem – an issue that has been corrected. The lecture was recorded and students will still be able to access it," noted Wade Hemsworth, a spokesperson with the university."

Pick a streaming platform, student says

Tuqa Al-Rammahi, a second-year political science student, said the first day was "really overwhelming," mainly because teachers are using different programs and methods to teach courses.

"If we all, as a university, decide one video chatting platform is perfect for everyone, that would be amazing," she told CBC.

Al-Rammahi and Patel said that some lectures are taking 20 or so minutes just for professors to get started.

Inaara Kazia, a fourth-year political science student, told CBC she has decided to stay an extra year to ensure online learning doesn't impact her grade point average.

"The wifi on both ends was not great, I couldn't even understand what my prof was saying," she explained.

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Kazia and Patel both noted it would be significantly harder to develop relationships with professors this year and network, which are key to pursing higher education.

The school's orientation week has also been transformed. It's normally marked by lively events on campus and house parties off campus. 

Al-Rammahi, who is also a welcome week representative, said McMaster has tried to replicate the regular excitement through online events. Some have had professors and students bake together online. The school also launched a virtual alternative to residence life called Archway.

So far, Al-Rammahi says the week has received mixed reviews.

"A lot of people have expressed concern ... they already feel like their first year has been ruined in a year, which makes me feel really bad."

Isaac Glassman, a first-year health sciences student, didn't have to leave his Ottawa home to take his first university class.

"Even though everything is at home and it doesn't feel like a real university experience, it kind of is a real experience," he explained.

"I slept really badly [the night before], I was super anxious and I wasn't the only person ... but professors really tried their best to make the classes somewhat interactive and somewhat entertaining for people. I'm excited to keep going."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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