Student Reflections: Raed Altaf

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:

Raed Altaf
Year 2, BSc Economics

The idea of shifting from the bustling lecture crowds at Logan Hall for my Applied Economics lecture to the cluttered study desk in my room back in my home country seemed daunting at first. However, over the course of the last 7 months, I have seen myself grow increasingly fond of the Connected Learning approach while pursuing my undergraduate degree in economics. In this article, I will be outlining my experience with online learning including its benefits, challenges, and recommendations for addressing them. 

As a student learning remotely throughout the year, my learning experience was completely online – which UCL accommodated extremely well. The weekly 2 hour lectures for each module were replaced with mini-asynchronous lectures (spanning 15-30 minutes) and synchronous live lectures, recorded for our convenience. Right off the bat, I was highly impressed by the usefulness of asynchronous lectures. They provided an excellent foundation for the week’s content, and promoted engagement and curiosity in the form of questions amongst my cohort during the live sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed the independence and control I had over the pace of my learning. The ability to alter lecture speed, read closed captions, and pause whenever I wanted meant that my learning style became more active and engaged. The provision of extra asynchronous materials such as unmarked quizzes, additional readings categorised by level of difficulty, and questions forums really helped me cement my understanding of the lecture materials by viewing its practical application, and its interpretation from different student angles. My personal favourite addition to online learning was the availability of all of our textbooks online through apps like Bibliu, ensuring that international students did not have to compromise on their education due to geographical restrictions.  

In addition to the recorded lectures, I personally saw an increase in my engagement with my tutors and lecturers. Having my weekly expeditions of locating my lecturer’s offices replaced with weekly Zoom meetings and email communication increased my interaction with the academic staff. My weekly tutorials remained unaltered and continued to provide me with in-depth explanations over key concepts and their application in assignments and examinations – albeit online. I quite liked the level of engagement my tutors had with us; from sending us their handwritten notes from live sessions to answering our queries over email instantly, I saw a significant increase in the grasp I had over the concepts I studied this year. Kudos to the PhD students for continuing to provide us with timely feedback and explanations despite adapting to online learning themselves. 

Every positive university experience includes some form of societal engagement with the Student Union. In my case, this engagement was as the Director of External Relations for The Economist’s Society – the departmental economics society. The prospect of running a debate competition, and career-focused events such as workshops with our sponsors seemed daunting to say the least. Lack of student engagement, Zoom burnout, and difficulties in replicating the in-person experience were just a few of the barriers my team and I faced throughout the year. Despite the odds, we managed to organise an online-version of our annual Economics Debate, three insight events with our sponsors, and ten economic consulting workshops with firms such as OXERA, Cornerstone Research, and RBB Economics. As the departmental society, we took the onus on ourselves to facilitate student interactions, opportunities, and learning experiences despite the unfavourable circumstances. Establishing and maintaining frequent communication with my teammates proved pivotal in the process, as student societies remained one of the few ways students could interact with their cohorts. Additionally, by looking at the brighter side of hosting online events (such as the ability to invite international universities to our debate competition), the drawbacks did not seem so major. Approaching the end of my term as Director, I have seen an exponential improvement in my organisational ability, leadership skills, and innovative thinking to adapt to unforeseen circumstances – despite being online for the entire year.  

One issue I did face in terms of my studies alongside my peers was maintaining motivation and attentiveness throughout the term. Considering the mental toll the pandemic has had on individuals worldwide, sometimes I found it difficult to motivate myself to continue engaging actively with my academics – especially with the added difficulty of adapting to a different timezone. To work-around this lethargy, creating a study space and establishing a routine helped me massively. In terms of my study space, I found it effective to establish boundaries between areas where I would work in my room, and areas where I would relax. Similarly, keeping my desk clutter free helped a great deal by making sure my attention remained fixed on my screen. As far as routines went, I tried spacing out my lectures throughout the day rather than concentrating them together to reduce burnout. Establishing a fixed time slot for each module meant that I was able to equally divide my attention amongst them. Personally, I kept microeconomics in the morning, econometrics in the afternoon, macroeconomics in the evening, and education economics at night. I would highly recommend for the reader to take some time out and experiment with different working styles and timings – for example some of my peers found it easier to adapt to the GMT timezone by sleeping late and waking up in the afternoon. Lastly, to reduce eye strain considering the immense amount of time I spent in front of a screen, I started wearing blue-light blocking glasses – trust me, they work.   

Outside my academics, the pangs of social isolation affected my mental health to some extent. Considering the circumstances, I found it helpful keeping in touch with my peers from year 1 through Zoom calls and game nights. Attending online socials in the form of game nights, speed-friending socials, and drinking nights hosted by the multitude of societies in UCL helped alleviate this feeling further. Connecting with individuals who are in similar circumstances as mine really helped in finding support groups during the pandemic. I particularly appreciated UCL’s efforts in providing internship experiences to students amidst the struggling job market through their Connected Learning Internship programme. Having worked as an intern for the Department of Economics over the last month, I certainly picked up on a lot of relevant skills and experiences which would have been missed out on in normal circumstances.  

As I approach the end of my 2nd year at UCL, I’m somewhat glad to experience two completely different forms of learning. Online learning taught me how to be more proactive and responsible with my time management; in-person learning allowed me to meet amazing people and experience the joys of being a student in London. Although I do look forward to coming back to London and spending some time at Stone Willy’s, I am equally excited to see the role Connected Learning will play in our education system over the next few years.  

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