COVID, COVID, COVID... Sigh. The situation seemed to get better last summer and for a while there I believed the virus could be brought under control. With vaccines on the way and government restrictions, it would be lax enough for in-person classes to resume at university. But no, new coronavirus variants sprouting up and the subsequent stricter restrictions and lockdowns that followed meant that all learning this past academic year was done online.
Been thinking for a while now about the best way to give an honest review of my past year studying Chemical Engineering online at the University of Bath. I felt that a Pros and Cons list would best articulate my experience of it. I’ll start off with the cons and finish on a lighter note, detailing what I enjoyed or how I benefitted from an online university.
i) Zoom Fatigue
Watching hour after hour of zoom lectures (after watching hours of pre-recorded lectures on Panopto), glazed eyes, backaches from sitting hours on end, headaches from staring at my laptop screen all day long, became something of a daily occurrence throughout the past year. I began to miss the little things; making the journey to campus to start a day of lectures, walking from one lecture hall to the next, dipping into Fresh for a mid-day snack or Limetree for lunch, seeing people’s faces instead of staring at black zoom screens (because none of us can be bothered to turn on our cameras during a lecture).
Alright, this is partly my doing. I lived in student accommodation on my own this year, and that coupled with all the social restrictions, time commitments due to my course and multiple lockdowns meant that it was somewhat difficult to meet new people. The lack of in-person societal events this past year made things hard, there were online events held as a substitute, but I think I’m not alone in saying those got old quick.
It was also harder to connect with lecturers. I tried engaging in some of the lectures I attended, sent emails where appropriate, but in reality, it's no real substitute for the in-person interaction with professors in actual lectures or office hours. Luckily, I had a “network” from my course and societies I was a part of in my first year, so I wasn’t lacking in that regard.
iii) Lower value for money
I think I speak for every student when I say that a years’ worth of online tuition is not worth £9250. I acknowledge all of the steps taken to ensure that we weren’t handicapped in terms of teaching, but I couldn’t help feeling slighted when our demands for tuition fees to be reduced were ignored. Zoom lectures, tutorials, workshops, seminars, online labs (with pre-recorded data), whilst being functional substitutes, ring hollow when compared to in-person learning.
I got bored easily this past year. Sitting in my desk chair, watching pre-recorded lectures, logging on to zoom lectures, then revising and doing problem sheets right after… safe to say, my routine quickly became monotonous and stale.
Did I sometimes slap on a TV series during the day because nothing was going on in my head anymore? Yes (I blame the Sopranos and Succession). Spend an entire lecture scrolling through social media while passively listening to a lecture? Yes. Go down the Youtube recommended rabbit hole instead of cracking on with my revision/problem sheet after said lecture? Yes, yes and yes.
I spent many a late-night catching up on all that later, so it’s all good.
v) Zoom breakout rooms
I’ll concede this is rather nit-picky, but it’s awkward getting chucked into a 3–5-person breakout room to attempt a problem or discuss a topic when no one’s in the mood to turn on their camera or unmute their mic. It more or less becomes a waiting game until the zoom lecture timer ends and you head back to the main lecture room.
vi) Sedentary lifestyle
This goes along with my point on zoom fatigue, but I found myself missing the little things about going to in-person lectures; having to wake up for morning lectures on campus, walking to and from a lecture, playing sports after lectures, going to the gym regularly etc. If I didn’t make the time to get up and go outdoors to meet people, go to the gym (when restrictions allowed it) or just get my legs working, it wasn’t gonna happen. And at times finding the motivation to do so, was hard. Particularly during the lockdowns and winter months.
I could go on forever with this cons list and get even more nit-picky, however, there were some positives in my online learning experience that gave it a “glass-half-full” feel if you’d like.
i) Pre-recorded and recorded lectures
Pre-recorded lectures and their lecture notes were given to us days in advance of the actual zoom lecture, which made my schedule somewhat flexible. I had the luxury of waking up later than usual, spending timetabled lecture time on something else that was more pressing at the time and could simply circle back when it suited me. At times, if I found the pre-recorded lecture’s content straightforward, I could make my notes and skip the actual lecture (which was mostly revising the content) and go straight to attempting the problem sheet.
I mentioned earlier how much I missed walking to and from lectures, heading to campus and whatnot, but it's startling how much time you save when you’re not doing said things. Because I lived about 40-45 mins from campus, a good amount of my waking hours was spent on transportation. Further still, I could just roll out of bed the minute before a 9:15 lecture on a day where I was feeling especially lazy instead of having to wake up an hour or two before just to get ready.
I really appreciated not having to care about what I wore to online lectures. My laptop camera was mostly turned off so I spent pretty much the entirety of lectures this year in a hoodie/shirt and sweatpants/shorts. The number of clothes in my wardrobe I used this past year shrank considerably and I was basically a cartoon character wearing pretty much the same thing every day.
iv) Independent learning
Being forced this year to create and stick to my schedule really was an exercise in resilience and self-discipline. Having to tough it out through periods of feeling unmotivated and battling lethargy, filled me with the resolve that if necessary, I could do it all again if need be… not that I would ever want to.
And that sums up my review of my experience of online university, regardless of how boring and tedious it got, there were a few plus sides and skills I picked up learning from the comfort of my desk all year long.
I can say that I’m much more resilient and can create my own study routine without the familial structure of a lecture timetable. That being said, I'm very much looking forward to in-person lectures next year. Fingers crossed too because I’ve had enough of online learning!