Ontario Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Experiences of Ontario First-year Postsecondary Students in 2020–21

Ontario Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Experiences of Ontario First-year Postsecondary Students in 2020–21 was written by Jeffrey Napierala, Natalie Pilla, Jackie Pichette & Julia Colyar, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

A study of the first cohort to enter postsecondary during the pandemic reveals consistent challenges and key recommendations

A study of students who graduated high school in spring 2020 and entered postsecondary in the fall reveals respondents encountered a range of new and magnified challenges to their learning and wellbeing. According to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), the pandemic’s move to remote classrooms caused constrained academic integration, fewer opportunities for engagement and low rates of satisfaction. In response, HEQCO recommends that institutions address key skills gaps: developing skills needed for effective online learning, expanding bridging programs and integrating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in courses and services.

In Ontario Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic, HEQCO sought to understand the experiences of students who were the first to matriculate into Ontario PSE during the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted an online survey of those who graduated from high school in the spring of 2020, matriculated into PSE in the fall, then completed a full year of studies at a PSE institution. This encompassed 565 students, mostly between the ages of 18 and 19, across 22 Ontario colleges and 19 Ontario universities. One-third of our sample attended college and the rest attended universities; 71% were enrolled in business, humanities, health, arts, social science or education (BHASE) and 29% were enrolled in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Most respondents completed all first-year PSE courses online

Results show that the shift to online classrooms negatively affected academic experiences and mental and physical health — especially for those with disabilities or from low-income households. Students overwhelmingly felt the fully online environment had a negative effect on their learning. Students enrolled in STEM, and students with lower first-year grade point averages, reported negative impacts of the virtual environment to an even greater degree. Many respondents, and STEM students in particular, felt a lack of adequate preparation for PSE, reporting gaps in their secondary learning and recollection. A large group of respondents reported gaps in time management and organizational skills, struggled to stay focused during classes, communicate with educators and their peers, understand new content and stay on top of their course work. Students also found challenges maintaining their mental health and forging social connections. These factors contributed to lower overall satisfaction rates with first-year PSE than those captured in previous satisfaction surveys.

Nevertheless, many students, particularly lower-income students, did express an openness or even a preference for having some online or hybrid courses as part of their programs in the future. This openness is encouraging, especially considering the investment the Ontario government and PSE institutions have made into virtual learning.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt educational experiences, this research should inform secondary and PSE institutions’ plans as they work to enhance students’ preparation for and transitions into PSE (a pivotal point in a student’s journey). It light of our findings, HEQCO recommends that colleges and universities adopt the following strategies. These will enhance opportunities for skills development, academic preparation and means of engagement to improve student satisfaction and success.

  • Develop skills needed for effective online learning and expand bridging programming. Institutions should address skills needed to learn online effectively, such as organization, time management, effective virtual communication and self-efficacy, with curricular and co-curricular programming. Institutions should also explore strategies to address skill gaps in K-12 learning, potentially through expanded bridging programming. STEM students may benefit from a review of foundational concepts missed or not retained due to pandemic-related learning disruptions in high school.
  • Integrate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in all courses, the delivery of services and, where possible, co-curricular activities. UDL seeks to reduce and remove learning barriers and support learner variability. Survey respondents highlighted UDL-aligned practices as being key to their success. HEQCO has recommended that the UDL framework be adopted across Ontario institutions (Pichette et. al. 2020; Chatoor, 2021) and our survey results reaffirm the importance of this recommendation.
  • Extend options for online and hybrid learning in a post-pandemic context. Many students, especially from lower-income households, expressed openness or even a preference for having some fully online or hybrid courses as part of their programs. Opportunities to select courses in multiple formats empowers students to make decisions that best support their learning and accommodate competing priorities (such as work and family). Expanding the availability of online learning options may also improve access for students in underserved communities.
  • Collect additional data to monitor ongoing COVID-19 impacts on student success. Our findings offer a snapshot only. This cohort — and future cohorts — will likely continue to encounter challenges through their unique pathways. Institutions should gather and analyze persistence and retention data to understand the extent to which pandemic-related challenges have interrupted student success.