The University of Edinburgh is one of many universities that took to online learning amidst the coronavirus pandemic, with students for the first time juggling their university experience with limited in-person contact. The pandemic forced the world into trying new and untrodden systems and Edinburgh was no different, attempting to manage this online learning model that presented its own distinct set of challenges.
My experience of online learning was a turbulent one which taught me the importance of structure, routine and a support network. Lectures were what I found to be the toughest component of online learning. My lecturers tried to make the process easier by releasing them at set times weekly but the overwhelming amount of content made it difficult to engage and keep up with regularly without feeling burnt out. Even with an interesting module selection the nature of online lectures often made the learning process feel completely impersonal. It was difficult to feel enmeshed in your school and your faculty and this is one of the things I’m looking forward to most with the return of in-person teaching.
I took a great module about women and witchcraft in my first semester yet, even though the content proved to be interesting, it was impossible to feel a sense of class inclusion. Collaborative work was limited and the in-person tutorials, which occurred in the first semester, were severely limited by strict COVID rules.
A core component of university life that I and many people I know feel we have missed out on are those interpersonal relationships you develop with your peers and your teachers. It is significantly more difficult through online learning for lecturers to be able to build a personal relationship with students and for students to get to know their classmates, especially because teams and other online software feels like an additional burden alongside lectures and seminars. By the second semester, motivation had waned considerably.
In terms of grading and exams, online learning made this process harder to navigate. My grades averaged solidly within the upper second mark, however, one of the defining difficulties I noticed was the struggle with feedback. Lecturers were overall good at giving you pointers, tips and ways to improve, but the process of submitting essays and exams felt sometimes like a luck of the draw as you worked hoping that you were completing the task correctly. This feeling is not uncommon during your first semester at university where you move from structured exams to being thrown in the deep end as you are forced to learn as you go. Yet the general isolation of online learning amplified this and made it far less accessible. In-person classes involve similar academic struggles but are affirmed by the fact that you are amongst peers facing the same insecurities. The detachment from this academic support made many feel that they were alone as they faced their mounting workload.
I stayed in halls at Warrender Park Crescent for my first year and now that I have moved into a second-year flat, it has given me a lot of time to reflect on how difficult that was in combination with online learning. I got extraordinarily lucky and had a small but close-knit support network of friends within my accommodation, but the constant rule changes and lockdowns took a massive toll on our mental health, as well as that of many others we knew. It was hard to find ways to relax and keep ourselves occupied with the city practically shut down. Moreover, because our entire university experience existed online it was hard to be able to shut off. The process of deciding between moving into halls or staying home plagued many people, and I know in many of my tutorials a good majority had chosen to stay at home. I chose to stay in halls so that I could get a taste of the university experience and living away from home even though it was minimal; if I had the opportunity to choose again, I would repeat my choice. The halls experience was not completely negative and I did manage to find a small but wonderful group of people. Still, I know that this was not the case for everyone. Loneliness and isolation were more common this past year than ever before because of how little in-person socialisation we were able to have.
I do believe that we are in a much better position this September than the last, with more knowledge about COVID, the expansion of the vaccine programme and with more experience both on behalf of students and The University. One of the most pivotal lessons to come out of an online experience is the University’s gap in mental health resources, with much of it in critical need of dedicated attention. A first-year online has been unique and incredibly challenging, but also a rewarding reminder that we made it through this year with a great amount of resilience. My hope remains that this year proves to be a better, more memorable year for everyone.
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