Signing up to attend university in 2020/21 was a brave move for any student in summer 2020, given the uncertainty at the time about teaching, learning and the wider student experience. Those on undergraduate programmes have either had ‘normal’ time on campus (2nd and final year students) or are hopeful of a return to campus in the future (1st and 2nd year students). It is different, however, for our 12-month MSc Economics degree students who are having their entire degree experience in a pandemic, although with some hope of summer dissertation months being a bit more open. Prof Cloda Jenkins has the pleasure of teaching a group of MSc students in one of their optional modules in Term 2 and was impressed by how they had embraced the opportunities of the MSc programme which has been superbly adapted for online and blended learning (when face to face was allowed), how they coped with the challenges of life this year and how enthusiastic they were about their future opportunities.
Read the reflection to find out what the experience was like for one of our MSc Economics students, Heather Little:
After the first term of my MSc in Economics, I decided to take the risky flight back home to the US for Christmas. I flew back the day before news of the B117 flooded headlines across the world, and I had a feeling that my time home might be longer than I’d expected. After a series of rescheduled flights, it’s now been almost an entire term and I’m still at home in the US. I consider myself an early riser, but the regular 3:30AM alarms in Boston to make it to my 9AM lectures taking place in London required a period of adjustment!
As new information became available, I pushed my return flight back three times. First, I decided to wait until the very end of the winter holidays to return to the UK. The announcement to halt in-person classes was made, and I figured there’d be no benefit to quarantining before the start of term. I moved my flights back a second time when I learned that my student accommodation would refund our rent through reading week if we remained home, so I then planned to return in mid-February. I made my third (and hopefully final) flight change when UCL announced that there wouldn’t be any other in-person classes for the rest of the term and that student accommodation fees would be refunded through mid-April if we remained home. As of now, I plan to return to study for exams in-person with my peers.
These administrative changes weren’t the only thing that kept me in the US; I was also finding that learning from home was better than I’d expected. My presence in London first term allowed me to attend weekly in-person lectures, build relationships with classmates through study groups and strategically outdoor social gatherings, and form a connection to the program and the cohort more generally. Even from my kitchen table across the Atlantic, I formed study groups and maintained a sense of connection to the program. Study groups in the second term met on Zoom due to the pandemic lockdown and restrictions in the UK, so the format of our meetings wouldn’t have been much different if we’d been just blocks apart in London. We’ve become quite skilled at sharing PDF files of our work, discussing problem sets, and sending impromptu photos on WhatsApp of whatever derivation we’re trying to describe in words to the members of our study groups. While not nearly as idyllic as studying together in a café or as fun as bonding over celebratory beers following a challenging problem set, we’ve managed to learn from and with each other, form connections, and even play virtual Scattergories and Pictionary a few times. I cannot help but wonder how students who haven’t spent any time in the UK feel about peer engagement, as I realize that even spending some time with my peers has been critical to my studying and sense of connection to my cohort.
I wasn’t worried about a change in the quality of contact hours overseas, since my doubts about the online format were already addressed in term one. I was pleased to find that the vast majority of lectures and tutorials delivered asynchronously or via Zoom still felt very engaging and informative. Many of my peers actually prefer the online lecture delivery to the in-person mode, and while it’s my personal preference to physically be in a lecture hall with my peers and professors, I agree that the quality of lectures isn’t compromised by the online format. In the first term especially, it was clear that professors were adapting to this new mode of teaching throughout the term, and many eventually differentiated how they taught in asynchronous or live lectures. There was a definite effort made to deliver content in asynchronous sessions and elicit questions or extended thought in live sessions, and it’s possible that this intentionality even enhanced our experience in some courses relative to other years’. By the mere fact that tutorials are simultaneously meant to be highly engaging and also cover what’s usually a large amount of material in the week’s problem set, it was difficult to replicate a regular year’s tutorial online. This difference between online lectures and tutorials is expected, since a presentation from slides is very different than reviewing content and answering questions on a whiteboard. The use of iPads was helpful in tutorials to replicate the whiteboard experience, and some tutors really set the tone for engagement and discussion in class, but it’s obviously unreasonable to ask that each graduate teaching assistant own personal technology or have a certain disposition to replicate a classroom experience on Zoom. Overall, I’m very grateful for both my professors and tutors who all clearly tried their best to maintain a high quality of teaching in the face of a global pandemic and largely succeeded in doing so.
There were things about coming to UCL that I looked forward to but did not get to experience. While I feel connected to my program and cohort, I don’t feel particularly connected to the larger institution of UCL or its student body. I’ve spent less time in pubs watching “football” than one would expect and probably won’t make that trip to the Scottish Highlands I’d been so excited for, but I do know every corner of Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill, and the path along the canal! While these complements to a UCL degree may have been compromised by the pandemic, I feel the educational quality of the degree remained strong despite the challenges imposed by Covid. Whether we’re learning close to campus, far from London, or even oceans away, I think we can all be grateful for the opportunities to practice resilience and to embark on the meaningful pursuit of earning a master’s degree from UCL in a year that might have otherwise felt lost to the pandemic.