My name is Harvey Norman, a Junior Product Lead at Jisc. I only graduated university earlier this year, so my university experience was impacted by the pandemic. It began midway through my first year of university, and my learning and teaching was made remote/hybrid to the end of my third year. Due to my relevant experience, I will be talking about and commenting on the COVID, Campus, Cameras, Communication, and Connection article that was written by Jasmine Price, Donna Lanclos, and Lawrie Phipps.
It consists of an overview of a range of interviews conducted by Jasmine, Donna, and Lawrie in 2021, during the pandemic. The interviews center around how the pandemic affected learning, teaching, and the overall university experience of students and staff at a university in the North of England.
The main conclusions I drew from reading through the article ultimately came down to – as the article’s title implies – how covid negatively impacted communication and connection within the university the interviews took place at. The lack of social interaction between students and their peers, between students and their teachers, and between teachers and their colleagues had a significant negative impact on wellbeing, class engagement, and motivation.
Also, with the increased prevalence of students seeking access for support of all kinds, including mental health support, IT support, and general academic support, the article shows that there’s a concerning pattern of institutions lacking a robust support request system. As universities become remote students can’t physically pop into a member of staff’s office to ask for help, then it suddenly becomes a struggle for students to access the support that they need.
These conclusions are quite interesting to me because most of them do align with my own personal experience, but some of them are a bit different.
The article’s insights relating to how remote learning decreased copresence, wellbeing, and motivation aligns with my experience at university. The pandemic resulted in a lot of my peers losing contact with each other. Many lost a lot of acquaintances and some friendships even faded away.
Only a few people would turn on their cameras during online classes; the majority wouldn’t despite our lecturer’s insistence on us doing so. I personally didn’t turn on my camera during classes because I felt uncomfortable having my face on the screen and potentially have what would sometimes be several dozen people in the class stare at my face during the multi-hour long lecture. I’d much rather turn off my camera, not have to present myself properly, sit back, and relax.
However, the article mentioned instances of teachers lacking empathy for students not turning on their cameras and even getting angry at students for it. That wasn’t the case on my course. Even though we could tell that our teachers were disappointed that most wouldn’t turn on their cameras, they were very patient, understanding and were appreciative of the few that would.
However, the lack of connection between each other overall caused our motivation to decrease a lot. Many of my peers struggled to get any work done at all even though they would usually be efficient and fast workers before the pandemic.
I was studying for an art degree, so I think a lot of my motivation came not just from wanting to get a good grade, but also wanting to share the work that I produced with my peers and see their reactions. I’m not sure if other students felt the same as me or if such motives are specific to arts courses, but I could imagine that even on non-artistic courses there would be some motivation derived from wanting to study with your peers or share your successes with them.
This paper also reported that institutions didn’t make any attempts to facilitate social interaction between students. However, that wasn’t the case in my university. My course started the second and third year with a course-relevant but casual ice-breaking group project. Each group was randomly allocated. Many students didn’t get much out of it, but many students were able to make friends through taking part. The group project encouraged them to meet up with each other in the city because part of the project involved taking pictures of various places in Leeds. However, the project didn’t force people to go outside, because students were also given the option of taking screenshots of those locations with Google Maps Street View.
The article mentioned that there was a lack of communication between the institution and the students. That definitely aligned with my experiences. For both the second and the third year we were informed at too late a date about the university response to the developing pandemic. I was informed in June before the second year started. That was much too late because by then most students had already decided whether they were going to get accommodation or not.
And even when we were informed, the information we received didn’t align with reality. For both the second and the third year we were told that we’d receive a hybrid experience. Students, unfamiliar with what hybrid or blended learning was, assumed that hybrid meant that approximately half our classes would be in person and half would be online. So a lot of people got student accommodation and moved into their flats at the start of term, ready to attend in-person classes. Whilst the first week had two on campus sessions, each week after that only had one in-person class a week. And even then, on-campus sessions could be accessed online as well as in person. They implemented a dual mode method. So half the students didn’t turn up to the on-campus sessions. Then in the second term, all the classes were fully online. This made the accommodation that we signed contracts for only barely useful during the first term, and completely useless during the second and third term. It was a waste of money.
The third year was the same. We were once again informed that the course would be hybrid, encouraging us to get accommodation. Most of us caught onto their poor communication and decided to not get any accommodation, but some still committed to contracts. And as many of us predicted, most classes were online. There was one in person class once every week or once every two weeks. But that was only during the first term. After the first term all the classes were online. The only positive difference in the third year was that there were on-campus study spaces that you could use.
My takeaway from that experience is that the terms “hybrid” and “blended learning” are deceptively vague terms that need to be specified further to facilitate accurate communication. A course’s ratio of in-person and online classes is vitally important information for student’s financial, transportation, and accommodation related preparations for the start of term.
The paper mentioned that there was a pattern of students lacking awareness of the various types of student support that their institution offered.
I think my university did a great job of highlighting the various types of support on offer. At the start of each year we were given mandatory induction lectures about all the types of support the university offered and where to access them. But even without those inductions, there was a lot of clear advertising on our VLE that would point to the different student support services on offer.
The paper also mentioned that a lot of students reported struggling to get access to support from their tutors. They’d feel uncomfortable asking questions during lectures and they’d have to wait a long time to get responses through email.
However, on my course, the lecturers organized 30 minute long weekly 1 to 1 chats where we could get feedback on our work, ask the lecturer questions or just chat. This was really helpful because it made it easy to ask questions of my lecturers.
And since my course was quite small, I don’t relate to feeling uncomfortable to ask my teachers questions during classes. There were only seventy people in my year. Even then, most classes were smaller than seventy because my lecturers split the year into different smaller groups that contained 5 – 15 people. I never felt uncomfortable typing questions into the chat and I don’t think most other students did either.
Overall, I think the “Covid, Campus, Cameras, Communication, and Connection” article was a great overview of what it was like for students and teachers during the pandemic at one institution. My main takeaway from the article and from reflecting back on my experience during the pandemic is the importance of social interaction and social presence. The social environment of university isn’t just for providing an enjoyable university experience, it also seems to be vital for providing frictionless communication, class engagement, and motivation; critical factors for effective learning and teaching.
The paper’s main points perfectly aligned with my own experience during that time. But the tertiary details that differed show that whilst there are some clear patterns across how the university experience was altered during the pandemic, there was also some variance in how universities, teachers, and students reacted to the pandemic and how they were impacted by it.