The past year has been like no other – for all of us, but particularly so in the world of education which typically depends so much on bringing people together in a physical space. In higher education, this is often a meeting of minds from around the world, and at UCL Economics, we are particularly proud of our very global student and staff body. This year, this presented particular challenges, with all of us scattered around the world. This blog series is a set of reflections from our students across our undergraduate and taught graduate programmes, on how the year has gone for them, what they’ve learned about life and work, and what they are looking ahead to.
For Prof Cloda Jenkins and Prof Parama Chaudhury, a large part of the “new normal” was designing and implementing a bespoke Economics Connected Learning model for the 1000+ students over all our programmes. This involved developing a Moodle template suitable for the needs of Economics modules and students, running workshops for colleagues on how to redesign learning and assessment in their modules, and training teaching assistants on the support required to run these module smoothly. A key part in this process was played by Connected Learning Interns, funded generously by UCL Arena. Parama was interviewed for a brief piece on how these students helped in the process and indeed how invaluable their input was. These interns are first and foremost students of course, and while their exposure to economics at UCL in their first two years helped us design our education model this year, we also wanted to hear how they had got on given their involvement in the development and evaluation of the model. Read the reflection to find out:
Year 3, BSc Economics
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the educational system of almost all nations has taken a severe blow. During such trying times, studying as a finalist for BSc Economics, at the University College London, has been a challenging as well as an extraordinary experience. In this article, I will be sharing my experience with remote learning and will highlight a number of pros and cons that I have experienced so far with regards to online learning. Besides portraying the perspective of a student, I will also share my experience in working towards improving online learning at my department.
I feel absolutely enthralled at having experienced both behind-the-scenes in terms of planning ways to improve online teaching at the department of Economics and perceiving those improvements in learning as a student. The most prominent change that I have perceived with respect to online learning has been a change in the structure and flexibility of almost all modules that are taught at the department. As a finalist student who has had substantial experience with learning at UCL before the emergence of the pandemic, I would like to highlight that the online medium has enabled learning at my department to be more interactive, innovative, engaging and flexible.
One of the great perks of online teaching for me has been the introduction of more asynchronous materials for almost all modules. Lecturers of most modules have made increased usage of asynchronous materials where they recorded short lectures on different sub-topics either using platforms such as Zoom or Echo 360. This transition towards greater dependence on recorded lectures has proved to be greatly advantageous for me so far. Firstly, this allowed me to go through the recorded lectures at my own desired pace, so there is ample time to take effective notes and clearly grasp the relevant topics from the very first time of watching the recordings. Secondly, in almost all my modules, the recordings did not resemble the structure of traditional lectures. Most recordings are made on sub-topics, which makes it easier to maneuver through specific topics, especially during revision period.
During this new transition to online learning, the most prominent means of a synchronous activity has been “live sessions”. Despite core lecture materials being available through recorded videos and readings, I have found the weekly live sessions conducted by lecturers to be quite relevant and useful in terms of deepening my understanding of a given topic. What I really admire is the fact that these live sessions are more interactive and provide students with the opportunity to combine the knowledge acquired through readings and recorded videos with their own perspectives, in answering intricate questions posed by lecturers in real time. On top of this, for most modules, such as Economic History and Issues in Economic Development, the lecturers created an interactive environment during the live sessions that allowed me to think of the topics under a new light, with more focus being on application with real world examples. Also, the exchange of ideas from my peers further enriched learning during the 1 hour of live session.
Besides lectures, tutorials are an essential part of teaching at UCL and so far, the face-to-face tutorials seem to have translated into the online medium quite effectively. For most modules, the online tutorials have been of good quality. Even though I had initially doubted on the feasibility of online tutorials mainly because I had felt that reliance on technology would cause frequent disruptions in the learning process, but this has not been a major issue as of now. The tutors either used MS Teams or Zoom to conduct the tutorials. What I really found particularly useful is when one of my tutors created notes on MS Teams Whiteboard and then shared the notes with us after the tutorial. Also, a few of my tutors used the breakout rooms feature on Zoom, to increase peer interaction and exchange of ideas. This allowed me to have some level of interaction with my peers, which otherwise would not be possible under remote learning. If I was to compare the in-person tutorials with the online tutorials, I would say that the online tutorials have been successful in mirroring almost all aspects of an in-person session, with the main perks lying in the fact that I am able to attend these tutorials thousands of miles away in the comforts of my home. However, the main drawback for me regarding tutorials has been its timing. Living in a country that is 6 hours ahead of UK time, means that some of my tutorials take place at midnight. This has been extremely challenging on my part, because on any day after attending live sessions, going through readings during the daytime, then attending the midnight tutorials take a toll on my ability to fully concentrate. Thus, even though the tutorials of all my modules are of good quality, it is the timing of some of these tutorials that derails my learning process to some extent.
Another aspect of online learning, that has truly helped me to be on top of the weekly materials has been the introduction of weekly quizzes in modules such as International Trade and Issues in Economic Development. These quizzes acted as an incentive mechanism that further boosted my engagement with the modules and I believe such incentive mechanisms are extremely crucial for student engagement especially with online learning where there is always scope of uncertainty, confusion and at times insouciant due to lack of conventional face-to-face teaching.
Besides the perks associated with the structure of modules, another great benefit of online learning, has been the flexibility that has been infused into my timetable. It has now become possible to undertake more activities than under normal circumstances. For me, online learning has saved time for commuting to and from my accommodation to the lecture theatres, library and tutorials. Among all of these, I wasn’t previously able to attend many social as well as career events. However, ever since UCL has shifted to online learning, despite living outside the UK, I am able to participate in more activities than before. If I look at an average day of my life during term-time, I usually wake up early to watch some of the pre-recorded videos of any given module, then after breakfast I usually try to complete a few readings, before attending live sessions and tutorials from mid- day onwards. In between the live sessions and tutorials, I have attended a number of UCL career events as well as some talks conducted by reputed economists such as Daron Acemoglu on Automation and Labor Market. In the midst of an average busy day, I am even able to work on graduate applications. I believe online learning has added this new flexibility to my timetable that is allowing me to go beyond the usual cycle of lectures, tutorials and assignments, to a more enriched experience as I am able to integrate core lectures and talks by various economists hosted by my department as well as make the best use of the networking opportunities provided by UCL.
One of the major drawbacks that I have faced due to online learning will undoubtedly be the difference in time zones. Ever since the pandemic, I have been staying in Bangladesh, which is 6 hours ahead of UK time. Even though, I had initially planned to maintain a healthy routine by strictly following the UK time, by the first week of Term 1, my plans were quite useless as I found myself following both the UK and Bangladesh time. When I reflect back now, this has actually resulted in my spending more hours in studying for a given module than actually required. Throughout Term 1, I used to wake up early as per my country’s time, and then go to sleep late at night according to UK time. In other words, I got less than 6 hours of sleep. As I had gradually settled into this bizarre routine, I found myself being more stressed, than when I was in London. While many international students will be able to relate to this, others may find this equally peculiar. What is unfathomable is that despite planning my timetable rationally, I fell into this bizarre trap and I am still struggling to strictly follow only one time zone. There are days, when I manage to function strictly according to UK time, but soon afterwards I fall back into this vicious and unhealthy cycle. However, on a positive note, I would like to argue that despite having an eccentric timetable, there has been no adverse impact on my overall efficiency. I do not have a concrete reasoning for this peculiarity in my routine, and I am unsure as to whether this is due to psychological, geographical or some other underlying factor. Perhaps the reader will have an apt explanation!
Besides the time difference, I think that on a more general note, one of the major drawbacks with online learning is the lack of scope for socializing with peers. However, this issue seems far more disadvantageous for first year students compared to finalists. Even though I am aware, that there is always scope for socializing and forming new bonds among peers, but if I reflect back at my undergraduate life before the pandemic, I somehow always interacted among the familiar circle of friends whom I had met during lectures of first year Core Economics. Counterfactually, if the pandemic had not taken place, I believe I would still be associating more with my familiar set of friends and so online learning has not really hampered the “social” aspect of my life in terms of building new connections.
However, it cannot be denied that online teaching despite its countless perks, cannot completely mirror the comforts of in-campus teaching. Nothing can replace the experience of walking down to Logan Hall lecture theatre at IOE for the 9 am lectures, the casual lunch with friends on the steps leading to the Main Quad, the short breaks with peers in between lectures, as we chatted over a cup of hot americano about the upcoming lectures and assignments, and the urgent and somehow clicking away of fellow peers at their laptops in the Economics section of the Main Quad library. These experiences, perhaps trivial to many, added a distinct shade to my journey as an undergraduate student at UCL. Not being able to create more memories during my final year will perhaps always leave a gaping hole in my journey at UCL.
During the summer when I worked as an intern at the department, my primary concern was to analyze teaching methods and online platforms that would not only maximize efficiency but also incentivize students towards greater engagement. In the midst of countless uncertainties and stress among the student body, the main challenge lies in keeping the study materials relevant and encouraging students to interact not only with the course materials but also with their lecturers and peers. After having completed Term 1 of online learning at UCL, I feel that the new teaching structure has been able to achieve these goals quite satisfactorily.
According to me, the ongoing pandemic resembles an optimization problem where, the most rational thing is to try and maximize the utility from learning given the current constraint of social distancing and lockdowns. Even though online learning cannot mimic the minute experiences of in-campus teaching, there is no denying that it has certainly improved efficiency in terms of the newly designed structure of teaching at my department. In my view, the pandemic has stirred up new prospects for learning through online platforms that would otherwise be overshadowed by the more conventional methods and has refuted the belief of many that everything is more efficient when it is done face-to face. I believe further research needs to be done on improving the education model with respect to innovative usage of online medium as there appears to be immense scope with the development of various online platforms that promise to maximize virtual meeting experience.
In this article, I have not stressed on aspects such as connectivity issues and suitable studying environment, mainly because I have never had any issues with either. The only drawback for me has been adjusting to the different time zones, which has inevitably resulted in a bizarre timetable. To conclude, my experience with online learning has gone beyond the minimal expectations that I had formed when evaluating the various new learning methods during the summer as an intern at my department and has enabled me to make the best out of the various constraints during my final year at UCL.