The first week back to a new and very virtual university

After the very long and slow summer of lockdown and restrictions, it is safe to say that most students eagerly anticipated the start of/return to university this autumn. The excitement of classes beginning, however, quickly turned into disappointment and frustration with last Monday’s Learn fiasco. The university-wide crash of the online learning space meant that many students could not access any of their course content or sessions; something you would think to be fairly essential on the first day back to university.

The shaky start at the University of Edinburgh was made even worse by the additional problems of timetables missing and a lot of course content not having been uploaded at all. Even now, as the week approaches its end, many students have admitted that they still feel confused and disoriented as a result of the poor communication and organisation from the university’s side.

Students have partially been understanding and taken the flawed first week lightly. The flop has become a big source of comedic entertainment this week, with memes popping up on Facebook groups such as Edifess by the minute. With that being said though, behind the laughs and banter there is still a deeper sense of concern and dissatisfaction in regards to the university’s management of the start to semester one that does need to be acknowledged.

At this stage of the global pandemic, there is not a student who could expect this year to correspond to the ‘normal’ university experience seen in previous years. Nonetheless, after this first week of the new academic term, a sense of having been slightly deceived by the institution has arisen within the student body.

In several university emails sent out over the summer, students were told about the university’s plan for a so-called ‘hybrid’ model of teaching for the autumn. It is fair to say that the correspondences were misleading. A teaching model that involved a mix of online and in-person teaching was mentioned repeatedly and the university clearly expressed their hopes for students to return to Edinburgh in their communications. By now, however, it has become apparent that the supposed hybrid model we were told about is pretty much just a full-on online programme.

Even for highly ‘practical’ subjects such as illustration and architecture, classes are online and any studio time students desire to have is to be booked independently by the students. Even then, there are very limited time slots, mostly saved for fourth-year students.

Some courses have promised a fortnightly in-person tutorial that is to take place in lecture halls where social distancing measures are possible to reinforce. However, Covid cases have been rising continuously in Scotland over the past week, with new restrictions being announced every other week. As a result, not even these in-person tutorials can be counted on at this point.

With the fairly extensive list of disappointments, international students in particular have begun to question their return to the city this semester. From speaking to new as well as returning students, these attitudes have become ever more apparent. One student said: “Honestly, at this rate, there was no point in me coming back to Edinburgh. All my classes are online and our social life is so limited right now”.

Other students expressed their concern over the workload they are receiving, with some noting that the number of contact hours they have is not satisfactory. One dissatisfied student asked: “How can they just cut down teaching time from three lectures a week to one and expect us to be okay with it?”, while another added: “For my course, they’re literally using recorded lectures from last year”.

Another couple of students mentioned feeling that the lack of daily structure has already been making the workload feel more difficult to handle. “I hate not having my timetable. My days don’t have any structure which stresses me out”. Another student reflected how they are “so behind and it’s only the first week”.

Despite all the shortfalls of the week one, not all feedback was negative. In fact, some students admitted that they were not bothered about the lack of in-person teaching as they enjoyed the increased freedom of choosing when to do their university work (this being especially true for courses where classes were mostly asynchronous).  One student stated: “I mean it does feel like we’re being scammed a little but then again I kind of like organising my day myself. It gives me more time to do stuff I didn’t have time for last year… Join more sports mostly”. Another said: “I think I’m definitely more productive watching these lectures at home, but then again part of me is annoyed that I came all the way here and am stuck paying rent when I could have stayed at home for this semester and it wouldn’t have made a difference”.

There are definitely many mixed feelings circling around the student body at the moment, and considering the rocky start to this term, it could be argued that students have all the right to be upset. Though there is not much anyone can do about the very online heavy “hybrid” teaching model at the moment, we can all hope that the upcoming weeks will proceed more smoothly and continue to urge the University to show more transparency in the future.

Image: mmi9 via Pixabay