Remote learning at university: ‘This year has been pretty bleak’
Like every summer, thousands of students are currently graduating from university – but something is different this year.
Most of them, having not set foot in a lecture hall or library since March 2020, are celebrating in their gardens, with in-person ceremonies across Scotland cancelled for the second year running due to Covid restrictions.
For students in higher education – approximately 260,490 in Scotland in the year Covid struck – this is just another bump in a long road of challenges posed by the pandemic, including remote learning.
A recent survey conducted by Universities Scotland – the body which represents all 19 higher education institutes in Scotland – found that 76 per cent of students support face-to-face learning over remote learning.
In light of these results, published two weeks ago, Universities Scotland called on the Scottish Government to provide “clarity” on Covid regulations for universities during the next academic year, so that staff can plan ahead and students can know when to expect a step towards in-person teaching.
Alastair Sim, director of the organisation, said: “University students have shown tremendous resilience in spite of all the disruptions to their education and wider way of life but we’re concerned that we’re reaching a tipping point in regard to student wellbeing and risk to progression unless we can move ahead to a more normal student learning experience in the early autumn. Access to education, at all levels, should be a priority as society re-opens.”
No further guidance has yet been offered. Instead, it seems more disruption looms on the horizon, with a Scottish Government advisory group recently advising universities to postpone freshers’ week in September due to the risk of coronavirus spreading during “mass activities”.
So, as a tumultuous academic year comes to an end, we review how students have coped in the face of the pandemic and how universities have harnessed the power of digital in all areas – from education to social activities and mental health treatment.
The transition to remote learning
Nathan Harper, a third-year business student at Robert Gordon University, has seen his grades improve since the transition to remote learning, despite an initial period of teething problems.
He said: “Strangely enough, I’ve done better remotely. But I think that’s more just because everything’s been sort of open book. It’s a lot easier to get better grades when you’re doing open exams.”
Most Scottish universities have resorted to open book exams during the public health crisis – in which students are given a 24-hour or 48-hour period to complete an assessment at home, with no form of supervision.
On the move to digital, Harper said: “At the start, it seemed a bit disorganised, and nobody really knew what was going on. And obviously, you know, sometimes people’s wi-fi and things like that can go down and laptops can have problems. So that was obviously one of one of the main problems, but after you sort of get over that, I think it was it was done quite well.”
He added: “The Zoom calls have been quite fun. It’s easier when you’re in an actual class to sort of just hide away and be like, ‘right, I’m not answering any questions’ – I think there’s more engagement in the Zoom calls. It almost forces everyone to get involved and actually contribute to class.”
Regardless, Harper – like 76 per cent of the student population – is keen to return to the classroom.
“I think university is all about the social interaction as well. And it’s so difficult to socialise on a Zoom call. It’s pretty much impossible. And I think a lot of people missed out on their university experience because of this pandemic and all the remote learning.”
‘This year has been pretty bleak’
Experiences vary from student to student, and Ruth Christman, a fourth-year jewellery design student at Dundee University’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, has struggled to adapt.
She said: “As a student of a very practical course this year has been pretty bleak. First semester was better as the restrictions where not so bad and we were allowed into the workshop and to meet other people in our course. The lectures where online and honestly this was fine. I think it worked well. Participation was more difficult, but the content was there and easily accessible.”
With the introduction of harsher Covid restrictions in winter, and a lack of communication from university staff, her experience went downhill.
“The most recent semester was really rough. Tough restrictions meant no in-person teaching. But for a long time this wasn’t made clear to us. It was a bit like a stick and carrot approach or that’s what it felt like – ‘Next week we’ll have further updates’, ‘we are sure you will get in to work on your projects’, ‘it’s uncertain what’s going to happen’, ‘it doesn’t look like you’ll get in unfortunately’ – it was really hard to keep motivation during that time.”
‘The experience has been generally challenging’
Though it is evident most students prefer face-to-face learning, many have enjoyed the flexibility that comes with it.
Matt Crilly, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland, said: “Universities and colleges had to quickly pivot to remote learning as a result of the pandemic. The experience has generally been challenging for students, with some courses struggling to replicate the full in-person experience. Our scientists and engineers have gone without access to laboratories, architects and artists without studios, and researchers without full libraries. A range of practical, vocational and apprenticeship programmes across our colleges have struggled to deliver in the absence of in-person training.
“That said, there have been some positives too. Some students with additional access requirements have found it easier to take part in their learning, and hope that we’ll learn lessons going forward that ensures education remains accessible.”
Ellie Gomersall, president of University of the West of Scotland Student Association said: “It is fair to say that most students have found the transition to online, remote learning difficult. Mostly because that isn’t what they signed up for. Many feel that more could have been done to improve the online learning experience, however students are aware and understanding of the pressures the academic staff are under.
“For others, the flexibility that online learning provides has been a good thing – particularly for disabled students or those who are parents. Being able to learn by viewing lectures in their own time has been good, but less group activity has left some feeling isolated.”
Likewise, Ben Rapson, vice president of Welfare at the University of Strathclyde Student Association, said commuting students have “really reaped the benefits of online and remote learning, as well as a greater array of activities that they can access online”.
However Rapson notes that international students, who pay “sky high fees” and have “travelled half-way across the world” have a much “poorer view of online learning.”
For the University of the Highlands and Islands, which is composed of 13 campuses and research institutions spread across the most rural areas of Scotland, the transition was relatively smooth.
Florence Jansen, Highlands and Islands Student Association president, said: “The University of the Highlands and Islands has over 15 years of experience with blended learning so, while it wasn’t easy, the transition to fully online learning was less of a challenge for us than for other universities, largely due to the infrastructure in place across the institution.
“Many of our students have experienced financial hardships and isolation over the past year, and assessment periods have been particularly challenging with the new, distanced arrangements. Despite the difficulties they have experienced, our students and staff have created new ways to interact with each other and learn online, from creating online social spaces to having diverse learning resources which replicate the classroom experience.
“Through student feedback, we’ve heard that our students are keen to see the flexibilities of online learning balanced with the option of the on campus experience moving forward.”
Digital poverty and poor mental health
The pandemic has also exposed the ‘digital poverty’ experienced by many students – meaning they lack sufficient quality of internet access, relevant digital skills, or cannot afford to get online.
In response to an NUS Scotland campaign, the Scottish Government made a fund of £5m available in August 2020 to provide Scotland’s most disadvantaged students with the devices they need to access learning.
But according to president Crilly, demand for support “continues to outstrip funding” and he is calling on political parties to commit a further £5m of funding for the coming year.
At the end of 2020 the national student organisation also secured an additional £1.32m to support student mental health and wellbeing, as well as £750,000 to assist with more welfare advice on campuses.
This came after its survey found that 55 per cent of students’ mental health was worse now than before the pandemic.
The poll revealed that students impacted by Covid felt isolated and lonely, leading to increased anxiety, stress and worry.
Further NUS Scotland research found that mental health issues have been exacerbated by financial stress, with 73 per cent of students concerned about managing financially during Covid and 14 per cent having to use food banks.
It is not a mystery why. With hospitality and retail sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, one in four students have had their hours reduced and one in 10 have lost their job.
The Scottish Government funding has since been used to help student associations build online student communities, increase membership engagement and develop public health and wellbeing messaging.
The University of the Highlands and Islands has made various counselling options available to students, including Togetherall – a digital mental health support service that is available online 24/7 and is completely anonymous.
And Robert Gordon University host weekly, remote drop-in sessions with student presidents in a bid to replicate their pre-pandemic ‘open-door policy’ on campus.
Meanwhile the University of the West of Scotland has launched an online ‘student buddies’ programme, allowing students to seek guidance or company from a team of volunteers when things get ‘difficult, or a bit confusing.’
Is there a future for blended learning?
For the 28,240 first-year students who were accepted into university or college in Scotland in 2020, blended learning at a higher education level is all they have ever known.
But as restrictions continue to ease, universities are looking forward to restoring the full ‘student experience’.
Crilly said: “The role of digital learning in delivering further and higher education must be carefully considered, and we have undoubtedly learnt a lot this year. It seems inevitable that there will be greater use of digital going forward, but we must be balanced.
“Being a student is more than just the raw consumption of knowledge. It is a social and communal experience where you meet new people, grow in confidence and have the opportunity to take part in an amazing range of events and opportunities.”