UVic survey shows students struggling with heavy workloads, accessibility, and support in online courses

Campus News
David Strong Building with COVID-19 notices on the doors
COVID-19 notices at the entrance of the David Strong Building. The campus remains mostly deserted after UVic discontinued in-person classes in March. Photo by Michael John Lo.

As the spring semester approaches, UVic students and instructors are quickly preparing for another semester online. According to a newly released working report, the fall semester left students with difficulties managing their workloads and confusion around online courses. 

The Online Learning and Teaching Student & Instructor Survey quantified some of these experiences. The survey highlighted respondents’ concerns around workload, accessibility, and support. 5 242 students and 217 instructors filled out the survey. The student survey was conducted between Nov. 6-19, while instructors were surveyed from Oct. 29-Nov. 18. 

The survey reveals the toll online learning has taken on the campus community. Overall, students and instructors voiced their concerns about engagement, mental and physical well-being, adapting to online course formats, workload, and course quality. All of these concerns associated with online learning were amplified by the pandemic. 

Related: Online and overwhelmed: Students, instructors share mental health, accessibility, and workload concerns

Workload concerns 

The vast majority of students surveyed indicated that this semester was a heavy one in terms of workload. Forty-one per cent said the workload was somewhat heavy while 33.9 per cent found the workload extremely heavy. 

graphic of online course workload at UVic
Graphic by Kate Korte, data sourced from UVic’s working report on the survey data.

The amount of time students spent studying for their classes varied. 24.1 per cent of students spent eight to 10 hours on each course. 22.8 per cent spent five to seven hours on each course. 

UVic’s 2020 Student Guide to Online Learning says students should expect to work between eight to 12 hours per week on their courses. For a student taking four or five classes, this equates to 32-60 hours per week. 

A full-time job, at 40 hours per week, is equivalent to eight hours per course for someone taking five classes. 48.8 per cent of survey respondents said they are working either eight hours or over. Twelve per cent of students spend over 14 hours per course every week. This is equivalent to over 70 hours, if the student is in five courses. 

graph of UVic online courses survey results
Graphic by Kate Korte, data sourced from UVic’s working report on their survey data.

Some of these workload concerns are specific to online modes of course delivery. Students expressed confusion with due dates and clashes between asynchronous and synchronous courses. 

They also admitted that instructors’ attempts to make up for in-class participation through online discussion boards can prove to be more exhausting. 

“All of my classes require online participation,” one student explained. “I need to post an average of eight forums that contain substance and course material… separate from my small and large assignments as well.”

Instructors are feeling their workload increased, too. One said they’ve spent “twice as much time” teaching courses this semester, leaving less time for research obligations.

“Despite the support, the workload is immense,” one instructor said. “In trying to ensure we can reach students at many different points of engagement, I end up covering the material in four different ways… it’s exhausting and I’m burnt out.”

Online course confusion tops list of accessibility concerns

In the survey, students and instructors were asked to identify the barriers to accessibility they faced in online courses. 

A majority of undergraduate survey respondents (67.2 per cent) indicated that they had difficulties using online learning materials. 41.1 per cent of graduate survey respondents also labelled this as a concern. 

Having insufficient time to complete tests, assignments, and projects was the second most common concern for undergraduate students. 52.9 per cent of undergraduate respondents and 25.4 per cent of graduate students indicated this was a barrier to accessibility.

Other accessibility concerns raised by survey respondents point to confusion around online course delivery. Confusion accessing or using course materials (52.6 per cent of undergrads) and confusion around new technology (51.4 per cent of undergrads) were in the top five accessibility concerns. Graduate students did not share in this confusion as much, with just 24.1 per cent indicating they were confused about accessing course materials and 35.9 per cent indicating they were confused about the new technology.

Supporting students 

In their survey responses, students made it clear that they need additional support in a variety of areas. 

The results split up the responses between new and returning undergraduate students and new and returning graduate students. The most common area where both new and returning graduate students needed additional support was in connecting with other students. 

“[I am] feeling really disconnected from other students/peers at UVic,” one student said. “[It’s] more of a feeling of homeschool where you are all on your own.”

For new undergraduate students, academic support resources and support for connecting with other students were the two most common answers. Returning students also expressed a need for additional support for connecting students. Mental health and wellness supports were also near the top of the list for areas where returning students expressed a need for additional support. 

Related: Martlet survey reveals students feel online classes are not the same quality as in-person instruction, have mixed reviews of UVic’s response to COVID-19

Instructors also expressed troubles with student engagement and connecting with their students. Although some said that discussion groups have allowed more students to make meaningful contributions, others said that Zoom calls are impersonal and make it hard to judge student engagement levels.

“I myself am disconnected,” one instructor said. “I don’t feel like I’m really ‘teaching,’ but only managing a website.”

The survey also provided a look at where students are studying from. For students joining class from other time zones, synchronous classes can be difficult. Although students could technically join online classes from anywhere in the world, most (65 per cent) returning undergraduate students are still living in Victoria. 

This is not the case for new graduate students. One quarter of new graduate students are studying from other countries. This was a significant difference from the returning graduates and undergraduate students. In these categories, less than 10 per cent of students said they are living in another country. 

Survey recommendations 

In the report that detailed the survey results, UVic offered seven recommendations for improving online course delivery in the upcoming semester. Four of the recommendations are instructor-centred, while three offer broader suggestions for the university. Their suggestions range from accessibility measures, like adding captions to lectures, to less concrete steps, like meeting student questions with compassion. 

The first recommendation asks instructors to be clear in their communication and expectations for students by implementing tactics like an orientation to the course in the first week and a mid-semester course experience survey. The second recommendation suggests instructors limit content to what is necessary and distribute coursework throughout the term. 

The third recommendation emphasizes the importance of effective course organization, and asks instructors to respect the reading break closure and keep synchronous lecture times within the allotted time for the course. This leads into the fourth and final instructor-centred recommendation, which focuses on the benefits of more accessible and flexible courses. For instance, UVic recommends instructors use “flexible exam start times, alternate forms of assessment, multimedia approaches, and offering options for how students can demonstrate their knowledge.”

The next two recommendations are focused on addressing students’ need for connection and mental health concerns. The fifth recommendation encourages increasing opportunities to connect with instructors, TAs, and other students. The mental health suggestions largely centre on wellness, and include things like encouraging students to take breaks and get active. 

The last recommendation asks students and professors to make use of available supports, which can be accessed through the student site Learn Anywhere and instructor site Teach Anywhere.