It is over a year since UCL first moved teaching, learning and assessment online. Little did we know at the time that the changes we were making for an ‘emergency’ operating model would be in place for so long. Our students in second year of our BSc had their first year of studies interrupted, with formal assessments cancelled and replaced with a capstone assessment designed by the CTaLE team. Their second year has been largely online, particularly since Christmas 2020. For most of the students more than half of their degree has been experienced through the lens of a pandemic and remote but not distant education philosophy. Our adaptable learning model at UCL Economics has been embedded across the curriculum this year, with a focus on enhancing student learning online. As we move into assessment mode in Term 3, now is a good time to consider how the model has worked from the perspective of a student who has been studying away from campus for more than year. Read the reflection to find out:
Year 2, BSc Economics
As a penultimate-year BSc Economics student at UCL, I have spent almost twelve months studying remotely from Canada. I spent the first half of my first year on campus in London (September 2019 – March 2020), and the remainder of these past eleven and a half months online. These experiences are what allow me to make some of the comparisons that you will find in this article, which will summarise my overall learning experience, what I think worked for me with regard to studying remotely, and some words of advice for those who find the virtual landscape more challenging.
Beginning with the academic aspects of online learning, my weekly contact hours have not been affected (in both years). The initial transition to the virtual format, which occurred in March 2020, happened very suddenly, but adapting to this new pedagogy was not difficult for me. I had already familiarised myself with Moodle’s interface during first-year, and accessing online lectures/tutorials was very straightforward. I quickly learnt that waking up at 4AM (because Toronto is 5 hours behind London) to watch live lectures instead of their recordings was obviously unsustainable, and so the fact that almost all of my lectures were recorded was an immense help. The content that is taught in each lecture has not been compromised whatsoever, and I find that each lecture is as detailed and thorough as it would have been in-person. Watching lectures on Zoom and on other technologies has essentially established a one-to-one student-teacher ratio, where I am not distracted by other students in the same room as me, and my questions are almost always answered within a day of my asking them. Given that I have the freedom to watch lectures from the comfort of my home at a convenient time, I feel that my learning experience has been enriched by the virtual format, and that I retain more information from each lecture. My professors have always been very responsive, and each week a forum is available to all students who are encouraged to post any questions that they may have. My experiences with weekly tutorials have been exactly as they were in-person. In fact, some of these experiences have actually been improved by the virtual environment, particularly because tutors are understanding of the hardships of learning online.
That the quality of my learning experience has not been hindered by the many obstacles introduced by the pandemic is a testament to the faculty and staff at UCL, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Economics in particular.
In terms of extra-curriculars, the virtual landscape has granted me with massive opportunities. It is far easier to attend talks by notable economists at different universities, career-based workshops and summits, book launches, and panel discussions online, than it is in-person. During first-year, I would be running (oftentimes literally) back and forth between UCL, my accommodation, the gym, and whichever venue the event was being held at on that particular day. And of course, it was always raining. Nowadays, I have to muster the effort to descend a flight of stairs, find the link for the event, and log in to Zoom. I know, life is tough sometimes.
On the internships front, I had been managing applications for summer internships throughout second-year year, and had only stopped very recently because I managed to secure two offers. Again, being online helped a lot with scheduling interviews and organising networking, and it also helped me improve my communication skills as I had to overcome the challenges of interviewing virtually. That companies and their recruitment teams were also accommodating of my busy schedule was a big help too.
In the spirit of keeping this article brief, I’ll now share my thoughts about some of the downsides of studying remotely and some words of advice before wrapping up. The advantages of the virtual format outlined above must be taken with a pinch of salt. A huge part of the university experience is the social interactions between friends, colleagues, teachers, and others. There is no doubt that nights out, football games, movies, nights in, and days at the park made my time in London especially enjoyable, but I have also enjoyed some time to myself during lockdowns. I would also like to recognise that this is not possible for everyone and that I am incredibly lucky to have everything I need to protect myself and my family from COVID. Regardless, I’d like to share what worked for me, and why I am in great physical and mental shape. As someone who loves the gym, training (working out) has been one of the most important things I have done on a consistent basis. I’d highly recommend some form of exercise to everyone who is in a position to do it. I think I have torn through 14 books since last July, and a good book can make a difficult week more tolerable. As mentioned earlier, I attended several virtual events about topics of interest. There is almost always something going on, so be on the lookout for talks, seminars, book launches and whatever else you may be interested in. Finally, and I’d be remiss to leave this out, make time for yourself to unwind. There were times when I felt university work supplemented with the stress of internship applications would overwhelm me, and I think it’s very easy to overwork yourself when studying remotely. Again, a book, exercise, family time and YouTube/Netflix can all help with this.
I hope this account of my experiences will prove useful for those who have been kind enough to read it in its entirety.