Going on a virtual exchange has brought many surprises. This is owing to my not having known very much about what to expect, given the lack of such programs before COVID-19. The uncertainty of what may happen, when paired with the relatively bland day-to-day routine characteristic of self-isolation, gave way to many pleasant surprises during my time as a virtual exchange student. I am studying at American University for the spring term, though I feel these surprises are not exclusive to my institution.
The first surprise was the different means to calculate workload. At American U, the system of credit hours is implemented to help students schedule their courses. Each course can grant anywhere from 0 to 3 credits on average, with 0 credit courses often being electives with low commitment—a two week seminar with guest speakers on working in Washington, for instance. Three credit courses have workloads similar to a regular University of Toronto course, each taking up about three hours of class time per week. This helped me understand which courses would be eligible for degree completion and which are to be taken as electives. I was able to connect with my staff advisor at American University to better understand the expectations for how many credit hours are to be fulfilled, making the transition much easier.
Also, none of my classes exceeded 35 participants. Most courses had around 20 students present, and each is generally expected to turn on their video for online classes. Many of my professors said this was to show engagement, and it seemed to be an established norm—even if students cannot see each other. Certain video conferencing software, like Canvas’ Conferences, only allows the instructor to students’ videos, students cannot see each other. Despite this, instructors state they may call on students based on whose hands were up in their videos, or that they simply like seeing everyone’s faces. In the classes where I do see my classmate, I appreciate being able to see them speak. Being able to reciprocate is a reasonable expectation that also helps make the course seem more intimate.
Finally, I didn’t realize that some universities have different student interfaces to access class materials. At the University of Toronto, all courses use Quercus, allowing materials ranging from Zoom call credentials to assignment submission pages to be centralized. At American University, there are some instructors who have posted course resources on Blackboard, and others who opted into Canvas. Thus, it is essential to check both pages regularly to stay on track with new announcements and alterations in the syllabus. Though both of these interfaces deliver updates in the form of email notifications, regularly accessing both Blackboard and Canvas manually is a good means of making sure you’ve not missed anything. It is all too easy to miss important emails sandwiched between university updates and listserv tests.
In sum, the three surprises for me were the credit-hour system of calculating course load, the norm of having video on throughout an online class, and how students can be expected to access more than one type of course interface for their classes. These changes have taught me how students from different schools may experience online learning differently, as well as my preferences for different systems. For instance, I prefer the credit hour system, for that allows a greater number of courses and therefore—a greater variety of topics—to be learned without equal degrees of commitment. I hope this has been helpful, please let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment!