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Online teaching and the student experience

Written by Campus Comment, Comment

Last week, Newcastle University announced its plans for the first semester of the next academic year. Lectures are to be online as they have been for a large portion of this current semester, with the option for some small-group face-to-face teaching being introduced gradually.

Honestly, I completely understand this decision. Given the current pandemic, the University has to try and prevent anything that could make the virus spread. However, something that hasn’t really been acknowledged by the University – even in the numerous emails we’re sent as the student body on the subject – is how this completely dismantles the student experience we’re paying so much money for.

In terms of teaching, I’m not sure if anyone else agrees, but I learn best by physically being in a lecture theatre where there are far less distractions than in my room. The routine helps a lot too; having everything at a set time in a set place puts me in the right headspace for learning. Online lectures aren’t the same, with some not being uploaded when the lecture itself would be, making it impossible to have that same structure.

If we wanted online degrees we’d be saving £3000 or so a year by going to The Open University

Even then, the content of teaching for some modules isn’t half as good. I’ve been a Course Rep this year and so many people have come to me so say they are unhappy with how certain modules have adapted to the online learning environment. This is something I’d imagine will be handled much better next year, but frankly, if we wanted online degrees we’d be saving £3000 or so a year by going to The Open University. Russell Group universities have high reputations, that’s why we applied to them, but the transition has been inadequate in lots of ways.

Today it was announced that study placements that had years abroad were getting cancelled. This is a colossal blow to any students on those courses, and something that no online teaching could ever even begin to replace. I really hope that this is able to change in semester two, because otherwise these students are being outright swindled, as some of them will have undoubtedly made their choice to study their specific course because of the opportunity for placements.

My biggest sympathies go out to next year’s batch of first year students. Freshers’ week was a magical time for me, and I say that as someone who didn’t do any of the clubbing events. More importantly, it was a huge transitional period that allowed me to get to grips with being 200 miles from home in a new city. This will not be possible for new students in its current form, and that will inevitably make their transition a rockier one.

Not only will first year students suffer, but continuing ones will too. I’ll be heading into my final year next year, so it’ll potentially be the last time I get to see some people from my course, and that’s really upsetting. We won’t be able to see each other at lectures either, so the social side of university next year will be…quiet, to say the least. And again this was something I’d imagine most of us consider pivotal to the student experience – being able to connect with people and ideas from all around the world – and through Facebook groups you just can’t capture the same feeling.

Of course, the reduced social activity brings with it a slew of potential mental health problems. Stress is something students know too well, but when your social life is put on halt (or at least severely slowed down), it can have a lasting impact on your confidence and mental health. Hopefully the University’s counselling and wellbeing services are able to provide support to everyone who needs it next year.

It has been acknowledged by the University just how much of a negative impact the pandemic is having on the quality of teaching, especially combined with the strikes earlier in the academic year. This has been shown with their payments to current final year students, though they made the conditions to get these payments difficult for what was really a paltry amount compared to how much those students missed out on.

Personally, I believe something should be given to every student right now, and frankly final year students should be entitled to more than what the University has provided, because we are getting into thousands of pounds debt when there is a very high chance of a recession occurring in the near future. At the same time, the very thing we’re getting into debt for has been largely unsatisfactory for at least the past three months, up to six counting the effects of strikes. Though in emails I have been told the University does not see us as cash cows, it’s very difficult to believe that right now.

With next year being my last year as a student at Newcastle University, I want it to be one of the best years of my life. And while I’ll still have the friends and opportunities that university has provided me, a lack of physical teaching will massively impact my studies, throwing some unnecessary stress into the mix. Hopefully the measures in place for next year will take all of the recent flaws and try to fix them. With the virus likely here to stay for a while, that’s all we can hope for.

Image: the University of British Columbia

Last modified: 24th June 2020

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