2020/21 at UCL Economics has been interesting on many dimensions, with many firsts. This includes having our largest first year intake ever, providing opportunities to students who met their offer requirements despite a difficult final year of secondary school. The number of students taking our compulsory first-year modules doubled in size, making it more important than ever that we made best use of technologies including Moodle, ECHO360, Classex Experiments and Mentimeter, to deliver online teaching and ensure interactivity as far as possible between staff and students as well as between students. It has not been feasible to replicate all that these students would have experienced with a first year on campus but, as lecturers of the compulsory Economics module, based on the CORE curriculum, Dr Dunli Li, Prof Cloda Jenkins and Prof Parama Chaudhury, adapted the course to reflect the online teaching and learning environment and the increased number of students.
Read the reflection to find out how it went from a student perspective:
Year 1, BSc Economics
My first year of studying Economics at UCL has been an unconventional, yet positive experience. Tutorials, exams, and most lectures have been conducted online, and so the university experience has consisted of sitting at a screen in my bedroom, which is definitely not how I envisioned my first year at university to be like! There have been both positive and negative aspects to this new way of learning, however overall, I have enjoyed the first half of my first year.
The majority of my modules have included a mix of synchronous and asynchronous material. At first, I was a bit reluctant about pre-recorded videos because I was not too sure whether they would have the same impact as live lectures, however I think they have been a very beneficial way of teaching. Asynchronous videos have allowed me to learn at my own pace, as the speed of videos can be altered, and, as these are released before live lectures, they provide me with the opportunity to think about the various concepts being discussed and ask any questions before these ideas are clarified and explained further in live lectures. I must admit that sometimes all the material has seemed slightly overwhelming, however I think the combination of live-lectures and asynchronous material has been very helpful. Pre-recorded videos can also be used as a reference point for further clarification or for revision purposes, which I have found very helpful.
In the first term, as I was on campus, I had the opportunity to attend a few lectures in person, which was quite a surreal experience. The lecture theatres were almost empty, with all students separated from each other and wearing masks. Having experienced both in-person lectures and online lectures, I personally did not find many differences between the teaching itself, but I think attending a few socially distanced lectures highlighted how strange this year has been.
Despite most of the live lectures being online, they have been very interactive. Professors have used polling, such as questions on Menti.com, as a way for us to check our understanding, as well as allowing the lecturers themselves to understand where students are having difficulties. These polls have then contributed to the structure of the live sessions, as lecturers clarify areas which students are struggling in. Another advantage of online lectures has been the imbedded slides, which we are able to flick through whilst the lecture is going on. When thinking of conventional in-person lectures, I used to be slightly worried about missing something if the lecturer changes slide, so having the whole PowerPoint available throughout the lecture has helped me a lot. There have been some technical issues, such as poor video quality, during our live lectures, but these have been quickly rectified by lecturers, as lecture notes and written-out derivations have been uploaded online for everybody to access.
Online forums and video call office hours have also built more interactivity and contributed to forming a sort of online community. There are of course some disadvantages to these online platforms, whether that includes technical issues or even just missing out on speaking to lecturers and teaching assistants in person, but I think given the circumstances, they have been a great replacement for the usual support platforms. Another positive online feature has been weekly and mid-term learning experience questionnaires. Through these surveys, students have been given the opportunity to share their feedback on all aspects of the course, which has allowed us to share our opinions and thoughts, which I think is especially important this year.
As well as lectures and pre-recorded videos, we have also had our weekly tutorials conducted online, which have allowed us to go through assignments and exams in smaller groups. Personally, I think tutorials have been the most beneficial aspect of the learning experience, especially given how large the Economics cohort is, as these sessions have given us the opportunity to ask specific questions and go through concepts in more detail, which has been particularly important this year.
Online assessments this year have been challenging. Completing exams both online and at home have taken some getting used to. The last official exams I completed were almost three years ago, so I think this long break has worsened typical exam nerves. This is a situation all students are facing this year, and even though online assessments are not ideal, perhaps doing them online rather than in regular exam conditions has slightly eased us back into assessments after not completing A Level (or equivalent) exams.
The social aspect of university has definitely been negatively impacted the most by the pandemic. Meeting peers through Zoom sessions or online tutorials has been a daunting and often slightly awkward experience, however being pushed out of my comfort zone in this way has been beneficial. Also, as I was lucky enough to stay on campus, I have been able to meet people in my accommodation, which I am very grateful for as I understand this has not been the case for many, especially those living abroad. Admittedly, boosting the social aspect of university this year is not the easiest thing to solve, especially because there are so many students living in different time zones, but I think missing out on socialising with students has just really emphasised how much we do rely on our peers for help whilst studying and also to force ourselves to relax. I have often found myself sitting at my desk for hours on end, which I think is a danger when studying from home, and another thing which has been caused by the lack of socialising.
Despite the challenges of everything being online, the Economics departmental society have organised several talks throughout the year, which have been a really enjoyable aspect of my year so far. Listening to lectures given by world-leading economists, and even being able to ask questions to these academics, has been an amazing and inspiring experience. They have covered a range of different topics, from globalisation post-COVID 19 to the election of MPs, and have complemented my Economics studies well.
There have of course been difficult times (and some technical difficulties!) during this online-learning experience, but I think both university staff and students have adapted very well to the difficult situations faced and risen to the challenge. This is definitely a new experience for everybody involved, and despite the lacking social aspect, everyone has learned a great amount. I think the change in learning we have experienced will have a great impact on university teaching in the years to come. For example, many lecturers may implement asynchronous material into their regular teaching structures, given the positive impact they have had on many students, or perhaps include imbedded slides in the recordings of live lectures. As this new teaching experience has become my new normal, I think it will feel quite strange when we hopefully return to in-person teaching, but I am really looking forward to it and hopefully we can implement all the positives, and learn from the negative aspects of this online year.