‘When you’re at home, and everyone is doing their day-to-day stuff, it’s a big distraction’
As the clock strikes 7 a.m. Namariq Abdalsed walks out of her room towards the kitchen, where she prepares her breakfast every morning, before moving towards the living room where she studies. Abdalsed begins to read over her notes for the calculus exam before her siblings, aged 3, 11, and 16, wake up and start their online classes. She logs into her laptop, frantically watches the time, and rushes to get as much work done as she can. By 8 a.m., all she hears is footsteps rushing through the two-bedroom apartment towards the living room. It’s going to be a long day.
While her mom studies for her college courses, her youngest sister is running in and out of her room. The other two sisters, who have their classes in the living room, go on lunch break just past noon. With the living room being next to the kitchen, all the noise just becomes louder.
Abdalsed, a second-year civil-engineering student at Ryerson University, says: “It’s not easy staying focused at home. There are too many distractions.”
She is one of many post-secondary students who are struggling with distance learning, which has blurred the line between home and classroom. There’s often a lot going on in the background during those Zoom meetings that have replaced in-person learning. With a big family, it can be hard to find a quiet space. Some students have family obligations aside from their studies, while others simply cannot focus in a home environment.
In November 2020, a poll released by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) revealed that 62 per cent of student respondents and 76 per cent of faculty and academic librarians believe that online learning harms students’ education quality.
The poll, conducted by Navigator Inc., surveyed 2,700 people.
There are no easy solutions for students whose homes don’t measure up.
Since the pandemic, Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre (SLC) has taken precautions and only allows some students with a OneCard to enter the building.
When the first lockdown happened, in March 2020, the SLC had to be shut down. “We realized there are students who need the space, and their academic success hinges on having a dedicated study space because not all students have a home environment that’s conducive to good studying,” Christopher Visser, the strategic projects liaison at the SLC says.
So when the second lockdown began, on Nov. 23, 2020, SLC staff decided to open the building to those who could show a need to study on campus. Those who apply and are approved receive either a reserved study space at SLC or Wi-Fi-hotspot, depending on what they requested.
“We have about 55 to 60 students that have filled out that attestation-of-need form,” Visser says.
The number of students reserving spots at the SLC has increased since the lockdown. “When we reopened in January, we were only getting very low numbers per day. Now, 20-25 per day and more every time,” says Visser.
For some students, however, heading off to the SLC isn’t an option.
“I have six siblings, with three living with me and an older sister that brings over her kids for us to babysit,” says Rukayyah Abdus-Samad, a second-year Ryerson student studying food and nutrition.
Her description of one incident illustrates how that can affect her studies.
She started her quantity food management lab at 1 p.m. She needed to keep her microphone on, so she made sure the door was shut. But as time passed, all she could hear was her niece crawling up the stairs in her house, making her presence known to everyone. She quickly scrambled to mute her laptop before the professor could hear.
“My prof was like, ‘Can you turn on your mic?’ And I was like, ‘No…’”
Jaafar Chalhoub, a second-year global management student at Ryerson, also says family murmurs are a problem.
“At home, you don’t get the best privacy, and everyone around me gets loud,” says Chalhoub, who lives in Scarborough with his parents and sister.
He describes beginning a class, only to hear his parents in the background, talking to their families on the phone loud and clear, and having to ask them to stop being so loud. Since his family lives in a three-bedroom condominium, he adds, it isn’t as simple as “going to the basement.
“It’s not the same in a class where it is pin-drop silent for the professor and no one’s going to distract you. Rather, when you’re at home, and everyone is doing their day-to-day stuff, it’s a big distraction,” Chalhoub says.
As the clock strikes noon, Abdalsed has to remind her siblings to stay inside their rooms until after her exam is complete, since she has to keep her microphone and camera on. She does some final preparation by studying a bit more, then clears up her surroundings, turns on her camera and begins to write her calculus exam.
Her siblings keep trying to walk back into the living room.
The two-bedroom apartment feels more closed-in than ever.
“Who knows when things will get better?” Abdalsed says. “I’m just taking it day by day.”