Will virtual university be enough?

August 28, 2020
Kaz Bosali

Covid-19 has changed the university experience

By Millie Braund

As we move towards a new term at university, there is an air of overwhelming anxiety of what the next year will look like. With universities offering, at a minimum, a style of ‘blended learning’ (half online/half in-person), will they be able to offer the full student experience, giving students their money's worth, and providing adequate teaching and social opportunities? 

When the pandemic was ominously climbing to its peak in April and everything suddenly moved online, there wasn’t really much thought for what the future may look like. As a student, especially, I was more focused on clambering my way through final essays and exams to try and finish the school year on a good note. Universities, though, were undoubtedly looking towards the future apprehensively, and how the lasting effects of the Coronavirus may impact the next year. 

In all honesty, whilst my university was completely understanding in the move online, the quality of my work truly suffered; I dropped a grade and was pretty disappointed in myself. Having to do essays at home with dodgy wifi, limited library resources and a large family on top of each other was tough, making it hard to focus and tick things off my never-ending list. 

Luckily, a few universities across the country, including mine, were very supportive, ensuring that the unprecedented and unavoidable effects of the Coronavirus would not adversely impact students and their final grades; schemes such as ‘safety nets’ and mitigating circumstances were put in place to protect students. Surely, though, this will not be able to be continued into the next academic year. 

So, will we be able to cope with another term of virtual university? 

Well, there are a few major issues with online learning: 

Students must motivate themselves to engage with the content that’s moved online. 

Unlike before, students aren’t having to get out of their rooms (post-night out for some), make the trip to university and sit amongst peers taking notes in a lecture theatre.

They are in their bedrooms, possibly in bed (especially if it’s a 9am start), laptop on with multiple tabs open, their phone on the side scrolling through facebook, and so on. If this type of thing happens regularly during in-person lectures, who knows how bad engagement will be when they are moved online. 

Students may feel a lack of connection and isolated from professors and tutors. 

Personal connections, especially those of a professional kind, can be difficult to build over a computer screen. Many universities have moved 1-1 tutor sessions, on top of classes and lectures, online. How likely are students to voice their concerns, whether personal or academic, to a tutor over a screen? Or, how easy will it be to ask questions in a lecture over the computer? 

For those universities continuing 100% online, will there be no class discussions or interactions with classmates? This intimate connection is removed, making it difficult to feel connected with personal tutors, classmates and lecturers. 

‘Edtech’ isn’t great, and lecturers aren’t best equipped or trained to use it. 

Millions of pounds go into campuses, lecture theatres and on-site facilities with, understandably, not much thought going into unforeseen events that would require everyone to move online. The online learning aspect is lacking, especially for smaller courses such as theatre, the arts, sociology, languages, and so on. How much then, specifically for these courses, can be done online? 

These issues, though, were understandable in the summer term, as universities were given little to no warning to move their content completely online. In the six months of lockdown in the UK, there has undoubtedly been thousands of hours, money and energy invested into improving this virtual experience for students. But, our next few months will ultimately pave the future of university learning. 

Personally, I feel as though the ‘new’ student experience will depend on your degree and your university’s response. I, for example, do a degree which only has ten contact hours and a lot of independent learning, but others have labs, lectures and seminars almost 9-5 every day of the week, and they may suffer more than myself.

We, as students, must take responsibility for our own education; it’s more important now than ever that we attend every in-person seminar continuing into the next term. Before, it was common to miss them out of laziness, but we can no longer take these small opportunities for face-to-face learning for granted. 

Overall, though, it is of most importance that everyone is staying safe, healthy and happy to ensure we can prevent a second wave of the virus. Whilst social and bonding events for freshers may be difficult to replicate virtually (a conversation for another day), it seems that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for virtual learning. 

The pandemic is rapidly shaping the future of the education sector, with more virtual learning likely to become the norm; the current circumstances will propel universities across the world into further considering their teaching styles, forcing them to build more modern edtech systems. 

Universities, for example, can create high-quality, content online which students can go back to as many times as possible, rather than trying to get as many notes down during an hour lecture.

They should also look to encourage more discussion between students and tutors through communication services, improving both education and pastoral care. 

I’m excited to see what my university has planned for the next term, and look forward to taking advantage of and enjoying online learning! 

Introducing Millie Braund

Hi, I’m Millie! I’m a 3rd year English Literature and Theatre student at Warwick University.

I’m about to head off on a year abroad (fingers crossed) to Berlin, Germany, excited to share my journeys on my personal blog. 

I’ve always loved writing and my dream is to one day work in the industry. I can’t wait to share all my student tips and tricks with HYBR’s readers! 

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