Delving into the Digital Campus: Let’s Talk About it – the Pandemic Hasn’t Been Easy

Mona smiling to the camera, standing outside on a sunny day.

By Mona Adibmoradi, Design Researcher   

This blog post is part of Delving into the Digital Campus, a four-part series in collaboration with the Digital Community & Connectedness Project, aimed at understanding how students find and make connections in digital spaces. Each post is a written reflection from our Design Researchers, sharing how the insights from their project has resonated with them in their own lived experiences.

Sometimes we all need to hear that we’re not alone. The pandemic has been hard.  

When it was announced that lectures would take place online, I was excited. I was excited about all the time I would save watching lectures at 2x speed. I thought about the coffee breaks I would take without having to rush to the nearest coffee shop. I eagerly thought about midday naps, grocery trips and workout sessions. At the start of the academic year, I felt ready to be my most productive self. 

I joined the research team in October. At that time, I was still experiencing the novelty of the pandemic. I was caught-up on classes and taking frequent walks. I felt pretty good. However, as our research project progressed through November and December, my pandemic experience started to shift. The to-do list was piling up and the shorter days left me feeling anxious. Days looked completely the same and I couldn’t shake this feeling of stagnation. 

When we first conducted the student interviews, I felt like an outsider – a researcher peeking through a peephole, trying to understand, but as the term progressed, those student stories started to sound a lot more familiar. It started to feel like those interviews were not just other students’ stories, but they also became mine. 

During our interviews, students expressed a multitude of changes they experienced during the pandemic. Many of the student insights allowed me to better understand my own pandemic experience, particularly the changes in choice, boundaries and community.

1. Changes in Choice: 

An illustration of a tea cup

This past year, students, including myself have had increased control over scheduling our days. When I wake up, I structure my mornings based on how I’m feeling. When I wake up refreshed, I quickly get started with my work and when I’m groggy, I take a walk before getting started. I can prioritize certain times of the day when I feel most alert to watch my lectures. However, for what we made up in academic flexibility, we lost in other aspects. We lost our sense of control over our social lives, not having a choice in how we interact with our family, friends and acquaintances. We also lost control over our physical spaces, as our homes also became our classrooms, offices and daycares.

2. Changes in Boundaries:  

A bending aroow

A major issue students expressed was the lack of boundaries between school and personal life. When our entire days are spent behind computer screens, it can be difficult to separate school, work and socialization. My home has primarily become my classroom, and with every break, my mind wanders back to the never-ending to-do list. It’s difficult to feel re-energized at home; I often must go outside to give my brain a break.  

 “It’s easy to be self-destructive with your time.  […] your entire day becomes scheduled around your computer. And then by the time it’s time to like, take a break, what do you do? You just end up watching YouTube or whatever. But you’re just so confined to that space where everything exists now that it’s kind of difficult to take time away from it.” 

3. Changes in Community  

Two conversation bubbles overlapping

Our communities are no longer associated with our physical environments. With communities shifting to online platforms, there are a new set of challenges — speaking into a black screen, missed messages, awkward silences. With these challenges, many students are left feeling like outsiders. For some students, moments of connection have come from opening up and sharing the personal highs and lows of the pandemic.  

“I’m trying to figure out a way to get out of this situation. But one way I am doing it is messaging, at least messaging people and just trying to start a conversation and just share, like, what I’m going through at least school wise, and then having everyone kind of agree and open up more, definitely feels relieving.” 

Community for me looked different this year as well. Throughout this project, this group of students and their interview transcripts became my community. This project taught me that reaching out to others, even people you don’t know, can be incredibly grounding. Sometimes we need to hear that we’re not alone. The pandemic brought with it challenges that drastically changed our way of life. This past year has been a difficult one for U of T students. This past year has been difficult for me. While I hope that the insights from this project can be used to strengthen online communities, I also hope that it gives a chance for others to hear student stories, and hopefully share their own. 

If you would like to learn more about our insights from the Digital Community & Connectedness Project, a report on our insights and recommendations will be available early April.

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