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Suddenly, every university in Canada is the same as every other. You thought you would be attending some prestigious big-city campus, or enjoying residence life at a smaller school. Nope.

Thanks to COVID-19 and the restrictions of physical distancing, a university education this fall for most students will consist of sitting at home and staring at a computer screen.

“We should do the best with the limitations that we have, but we shouldn’t try to convince students that they’re going to get the same quality education, because that’s simply not true,” said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

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“Anyone who says we are offering you the same quality experience as before is selling you something, because it’s not going to be the case.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus forced Canadian universities to shut down their campuses in March and move their courses online. To the extent physical-distancing restrictions remain entrenched, that shift could last for years.

The universities believe they can still provide a good education. Whether in a physical classroom or through the internet, “it’s the quality of the instructor” that determines the quality of the course, said Greg Finn, vice-president, academic, at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. The university’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation is working with faculty to craft the best-possible online courses.

Clare Brett, chair of curriculum, teaching and learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), says some students have found that online courses are among the best they ever took.

But she adds that nothing has been attempted on this scale – the conversion of much of the university sector to online learning.

“It’s like a massive social experiment,” she told me. “In a way, all bets are off.”

Not everything will be online. Lab work and other learning that must be hands-on, along with some small seminar-based classes, can be sustained in ways that protect the health of students and instructors.

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But students who attend those classes will find the campus virtually empty. Most residences will be largely shuttered, sports leagues cancelled or scaled back, cafeterias closed, libraries reduced to digital lending or curbside pickup.

Ankit Tripathi came to Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., from Hyderabad, India, in 2016. He’s finishing up a double major in environmental science and business administration while he waits to learn whether he has been accepted into a graduate program.

Mr. Tripathi can’t imagine trying to do a degree online. “I’m someone who likes to interact with the class a lot. I talk a lot,” he said over the phone. “I provide my perspective as much as I can. I engage in discussions with my professors both in the class and afterwards.

“In an online learning format that is very difficult.”

That said, students today are more comfortable socializing online, Mr. Finn said, and Brock is trying to capitalize on that culture.

“We are building in opportunities for that type of interaction, socialization and other aspects outside the academic space.”

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But this can only go so far. An academic once told me that the most important part of her lectures were the 15 minutes before they began and the 15 minutes after they ended, when students came with questions and concerns. Another said that a good year was one in which the students largely taught each other, nudged along by faculty.

“University is about more than classes," said Sofia Descalzi, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. “It’s about socialization.” Living with other people in a house or a residence. Joining clubs and watching games and maybe learning to cook and maybe falling in love and arguing with someone about something that’s really important for hours and hours. That’s how you learn.

In the absence of all that, OISE’s Ms. Brett says we should focus on making online learning as open, inclusive and innovative as possible.

“Given that we are in this space, it behooves us to try to do it really well, and learn something from it and try to make things a little better in this moment of uncertainty,” she believes.

But from this desk, it seems clear that for as long as physical distancing lasts, university life will remain a half-life.

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