Student Reflections: Nadeer Hanfi

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:

Nadeer Hanfi
Year 3, BSc Economics

This pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the delivery of quality education across schools and universities around the world. The second wave of the coronavirus and the subsequent shift to online learning provided little or no room for positivity towards an enjoyable final year for me. On the contrary, I have found online learning at UCL to be very effective and in this article, I reflect on how my experience has been so far. 

Prior to academic year 2020/2021, I had the privilege to work with some of my professors to prepare for the shift to online learning. Over the duration of my internship, I helped the Department devise innovative solutions to make connected learning as efficient as possible. We anticipated various issues that were likely to be faced by students, lecturers and tutors, and focused on solving them to make online learning smoother. As an intern, I was able to experience behind-the-scenes efforts and understand the rationale behind the structure of online learning, which has also enabled me to better utilize different aspects of online content delivery. In the following paragraph I emphasise how I utilize the flexibility of these aspects to my advantage. 

Most of the lecture delivery in my modules is organised into three core elements: asynchronous learning (pre-recorded videos), synchronous learning (live sessions), and tutorials (also live). Asynchronous materials are uploaded prior to synchronous/live sessions and are usually preparatory in nature. Most lecturers cover basic concepts in these videos which are explained later in the live sessions. A significant benefit of pre-recorded videos is the flexibility it offers. Pause/play at my convenience enables me to grasp concepts at my own pace, while adjusting video speed saves time. For example, using 1.5x speed converts a 60 mins video to 40 mins, saving 33% of the time which I can use to pause videos and take notes comfortably. Moreover, I can watch these videos at any convenient time. Usually, I take short breaks between multiple videos or pause longer ones to divide the workload which keeps my mind fresh and active. Besides videos, there are discussion forums where students are encouraged to post queries and lecture-related questions, which also helps other students with similar questions. Some lecturers often post additional points and clarifications for unasked questions which I have found to be extremely helpful.  

Synchronous/live lectures mostly consist of lecture content that requires live explanation and interaction, for example showing derivations for Econometrics or live polls for Behavioural Economics experiments. Lecturers have been wonderful at addressing student queries and they readily encourage students to turn their cameras on for a better experience. In addition, availability of weekly office hours provides another platform for students to get their personalised questions addressed. In addition, tutorials have also been very helpful in clarifying concepts. Some tutors discuss problem sets assigned in the week before while some attempt at tackling new questions, both of which are extremely helpful. I have found little difference between face-to-face and online tutorials because of the use of tablets and visualisers to demonstrate live workings, similar to pre-covid times. 

Learning from home and accessing learning materials from the comfort of my room has added great flexibility to my personal schedule too. With the ease of watching lecture videos at my own preferred time, I can squeeze in non-academic activities between these lectures, something not available during pre-covid times. These activities include graduate job applications, career seminars, employer events etc. for which I do not have to make the effort of commuting and being present physically. Moreover, with the local time being 5 hours ahead of UK time, UK working hours fit very nicely into my schedule and I do not have to wake up too early or stay up very late at night. Earliest lectures do not start before 2pm local time, offering me with the opportunity to either wake up early and prepare for lectures or have some personal time for myself to relax and have a nice breakfast before moving into the daily to-do lists. The only trouble I have is with evening lectures/tutorials that take place around my usual family dinner time which, however, is not a major issue considering we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. 

A major problem, however, with online learning is the lack of face-to-face interaction and social life. Studying off-campus, I cannot access UCL libraries and resources nor can I enjoy London’s vibrant social life. Usually, I would spend most of my time at the Student Centre with my friends and often catch up with them over lunch or coffee breaks. On Fridays, after the Econ of Finance lecture, I would head over to my friends’ place to relax, watch sports or play videogames. Now, most of my time at home is spent in my room in front of my computer screen. It has been difficult to engage with new faces through video calls. Fortunately, having spent 2 years on campus before, I already have friends and study buddies with whom I interact regularly. We often decide a common feasible time when we can discuss course materials and catch up on what’s been going on in our lives. Another issue with off-campus studies is the difficulty to find the right focus and motivation, especially during national lockdowns. Often there is nothing to look forward to besides staying at home and working. It can be really hard to find the right amount of determination and will power to open my computer and follow the same schedule every day. But I do try to focus on the excitement and satisfaction I will receive when everything returns to normal, something I am desperately looking forward to. 

Overall, connected learning at UCL has been effective for me. Except the reduced interaction, I have found the lecture materials to be as good as pre-covid. I also believe some approaches taken by the Department have been so impactful that they are likely to continue post-covid, such as the pre-recorded videos which can be posted before in-person lectures so that students are well-prepared for the lecture. With the roll-out of vaccines, I sincerely hope that learning in-person can be resumed as soon as possible so that first and second years can make the most of campus life and enjoy the infamous London student living experience. That being said, we should continue being responsible citizens so that life can return to normal as soon as possible. 

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