Student Reflections: Phan Nguyen

When Prof Cloda Jenkins introduced our BSc Economics with a Placement Year degree, she had not envisioned supporting students out on placement with virtual home working or considered how best to advise students on the etiquette of online interviews and assessment centres. However, this is indeed what our placement students have had to contend with, like the rest of the working population, in 2020/21. Their resilience and positive attitude to making the most of the opportunities available has been impressive. On top of applying for uncertain placements in a tough job market, our second years have also had to juggle learning online in our 2nd year modules, keeping on top of assessments, asynchronous materials and live sessions. They have already learnt so many skills relevant for the workplace and will come back from placement better equipped than ever for whatever the world emerges into. Read the reflection to find out how it went from a student perspective:

Phan Nguyen
Year 2, BSc Economics with a Placement Year

Starting my second year of reading Bsc Economics at University College London has been a challenging experience because of a step-up in second year’s content difficulty but also the need to adapt to the new online learning format. This blog post will highlight my personal experience of studying remotely for the 2020-2021 academic year and my opinion on this new norm of teaching. 

I think having online lectures have been extremely beneficial in terms of the flexibility that it provides. I was able to focus much more during lectures due to the clear audio and with me being in my room I was able to isolate myself from any distractions around me. With all lectures being recorded to accommodate for those who cannot attend the live lectures, this meant that I could go through any sections that I did not understand after the lecture to consolidate my understanding of the content. This also allowed students to organise and tailor their timetable to fit their schedule rather than having to attend lectures at a fixed time. UCL was very accommodating with the scheduling of classes for international students, myself included. I have studied remotely from Vietnam since the beginning of the year where there is a 7-hour time difference, yet I had no classes that were later than 10 PM. This made the online learning experience much more manageable than I anticipated. 

However, naturally moving to a new teaching platform also presented its challenges. During my first term, there were many technical issues where lecturers were pointing at certain sections of their screen to which of course we cannot see on the shared slides. This resulted in many being confused as we do not know what section the lecturer is referring to. By term two, this was partially addressed where some lecturers were equipped with iPads to which they can highlight and circle sections which they were referring to. Another problem I had was finding the link between weekly live lectures and the pre-recorded asynchronous material. I often found that the live lectures were simply repetitions of the content covered in the asynchronous material hence adding no value in terms of understanding the content. There needs to be a push in terms of content planning to allow for a more fluent transition and compatibility between these 2 forms of lecture material. 

The support and response from lecturers and professors have been incredible this year. We still have office hours from tutors and professors but now there is an addition of weekly quizzes and the Q&A forum. I found the Q&A forum to be the most valuable addition to the online learning experience. Students can post any questions that they may have on the taught module to which the lecturer’s answer will be displayed to everyone in the class. I would say this extends the contact hours as in the first year, I found office hours to be very short where lecturers were not able to support everyone. This also addressed the issue where many students would have repeated questions but since the Q&A forum is public, everyone will see answers to a question asked by another student that you also may have had.  

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge of online learning is the complete disappearance of social interactions with people at university. It has been tough maintaining friendships made in the first year but also it takes away any opportunities to make new friends in the second year. It is unfortunate that during most of my classes, all students had their webcams off which does make sessions less interactive and “in-person” like. I do want to see more lecturers try to encourage people to turn on their cameras. All societies are running virtual events this year which somewhat provides a solution for the lack of social events, but it isn’t perfect as it is hard to make meaningful conversations within a Zoom meeting. I did not attend any society events this year as most of them begin after working hours which usually is around after midnight in my time zone. For many, the lack of social interaction has severely affected their mental health and the stress-induced from being isolated for prolonged periods. Personally, although it has been tough on my well-being, I am much more fortunate to be living in a country that had a good COVID response hence life is more or less back to normal here in Vietnam.  

As I am a student on a placement course, second year is where I begin to apply for industrial placement opportunities. This was a time-consuming process where I had to prepare myself for applications which included researching organisations, networking, writing cover letters & CV. The process had to be repeated for each firm I planned on applying to which ended up being around 10 companies. This occurred during the first term which was also when I was trying to adapt to the new online teaching style which took some time getting used to. Balancing my time between classwork and applying to placement schemes was very tough but as mentioned above, all lectures are recorded which allowed me to manage my time much better to fit my schedule. I remember I had an assessment centre with the Bank of England which clashed with multiple classes, but I was not worried knowing that I can catch up later.  

All employers have moved to working remotely hence all interviews and assessment centres were held online. It was much harder to prepare for because I did not know what to expect from the assessment centre as they have been adapted to be online. On the other hand, I was quite relaxed during the process as I was not physically present face-to-face being interviewed but rather, I was at the comfort of my own home. The support from my placement tutors has been lovely too where I can just send a message to them on Teams, and they will respond promptly. Luckily, I did end up getting an offer from the Bank of England in early December which took away the stress and anxiety I had from the application process knowing that I now have an offer. 

Overall, this year’s online learning experience has been satisfactory. There have been difficulties at the beginning in terms of technology and mediocre learning experience as both lecturers and students adapt to the new online platforms, but this has improved over time and will continue to do so. The existence of online teaching has forced universities to adapt and bring in new ideas to improve student support and the learning experience. A common theme here is that communications between lecturers and students have improved immensely ranging from the time to the amount of support given. Moving forwards, I would like to see most if not all features of online learning to be integrated when in-person classes become available again, seeing that it has added immense value to the university learning experience. 

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