As the first session of study for 2020 moves towards a close and we slowly begin to relax our social distancing measures I have had the opportunity to check in with a few undergraduate students to chat about their experience moving to online study. I was keen to hear about what they felt worked well in the move to online and what some of the frustrations and barriers they faced were. I spoke to three students – James, Leah and Holly (not their real names).

Leah is a traditional high school to university student now in her last year of her business degree. She normally works between 20 to 25 hours per week in two jobs in retail and hospitality. Since COVID this has dropped to about 17 hours in retail only. Leah states that she doesn’t like taking online subjects if she can avoid it having taken two subjects online previously and failed one. This session one of her core subjects was only available for study in online mode which she was kinda annoyed by.

James is a second year business student. Like many of Charles Sturt University students he is what is termed a non-traditional student in that he has worked for some years and has a prior technical qualification. He balances full time study with significant responsible work commitments in hospitality and his technical field. James chose to study on-campus because that is how he learns best. He had not taken any subjects in online/distance mode previously.

Holly is a mature age student in her second year of full time study who came to university seeking a career change. Like James she hadn’t studied online previously.

Their stories

Leah described moving to study completely online as a bit of a shock to the system. She thinks it probably has been a shock for the lecturers as well. To complicate matters, she recently bought a house with her partner and moved in mid-session. Also a close family member is very ill and Leah has felt the need to provide significant support and assistance during the COVID pandemic. The online experience is definitely a lot less personal for her: you don’t develop as strong a relationship with the lecturer as you do in the face to face environment.

She is not absorbing the content of the online sessions and has been unmotivated to study. Studying at home is also adding to the challenge as it is easy to be distracted by domestic tasks. Leah states that she is normally pretty strict about going to class since this keeps her on top of her work. Now that classes are online she doesn’t really feel the impact of missing class in the same way. With work, moving house, no internet connection for a while and needing to support family she has missed a number of classes, fallen behind and has struggled to catch up.  That’s the thing about uni, she says once you are behind, you are behind.

James acknowledges that he is not the best at keeping a schedule but that in order to keep up to date with his studies he has been trying to be rigid in his attendance in online classes as these represent his best chance of engaging with study and keeping up.  If you fall behind it is all over he says.

Learning with Technology

Originally James had enrolled in three subjects. However, with the uncertainty around what would happen and how this would impact on his workplace commitments, James made the decision before HECS Census to continue with only two subjects. These two subjects gave him two very different experiences. One subject was delivered using the Zoom conferencing platform. For James this experience felt the closest to being in a lecture or tutorial since the lecturer requested students to keep their cameras on. Students could ask questions and the lecturer was able to check in with all students to ensure that they were grasping concepts, contributing to the learning environment and able to keep up with the subject content. James felt this delivery approach made him more accountable, alert and engaged with the learning process and as a result his performance in this subject has been better in that he is a lot more on top of the content and his marks are higher.

Leah is enrolled in three subjects and Holly four. Both also expressed a strong preference for the Zoom environment. Leah agrees that it is better to have the camera on because if the lecturer can see me, I am less likely to get distracted and am more engaged in the learning. Holly adds that the camera enables students and lectures to read non-verbal signals.  You can tell by people’s faces whether they are getting it or not.

By comparison, for those subjects where classes were delivered using Adobe Connect all three students reported feeling less engaged and connected. With no cameras enabled and unable to see the lecturer it feels like I’m watching a YouTube video says James.  The learning is much more self-guided, you have to muddle your way through Interact 2 (Blackboard) to find content. The lecturer has been keen to stress that she is very happy to take individual phone calls and is very responsive to emails but there is essentially no class interaction. It’s all one way delivery with very little chat and the discussion boards are dead.

For Holly, three of her classes use Adobe connect. On Friday she has a mammoth six hours of online study for two subjects. She describes the experience as just exhausting. For her Wednesday maths class the lecturer has enabled his camera, slide shares and uses a small on-screen board to work through examples. Holly acknowledges that he is trying to deliver the same as he did in the physical classroom but it is very hard to follow.  You are staring at a monitor trying to concentrate. In class he had a massive whiteboard and it was easier to ask questions if you didn’t understand she says. Also there is a time lag with this software and sometimes she is not sure when the lecturer has finished giving the example.

Another challenge that comes up for students is internet connection. Some students are in remote locations with limited connectivity.  They can’t drive to a major town every time they need to join an online class she says. For them the online situation just doesn’t work which is why they chose to study on campus in the first place. Internet connection is also a worry for Holly.  We don’t have NBN where I am she says and sometimes our connection is glitchy. The idea of an outage in the middle of my end of session (now online) exam makes me very anxious.

Connections between time & space

Interaction with other students is something that all three have missed most about moving online. James highly values the opportunity to interact with his peers as this helps him get more of a gauge of subject. Not physically going to class anymore he misses,  the little pockets of information, the general chat that happens before or after class and the tips you pick up [in-class] from other people’s questions . James has been connecting in with one other classmate via social media to chat about study concepts, seek clarity, share mutual understanding and bounce around ideas. There are some questions he says where you don’t really want to ask the lecturer.

Holly says she would normally meet with other students after class and share ideas and experiences. Now she is spending a lot of time talking to them on the phone. It’s been very hard she says to maintain motivation and keep going.  Normally in class students would talk about the upcoming assessments and where they are up to. If you hadn’t started working on it that would motivate you to get going. To get by Holly has become very focused on dates.

Leah has also been in touch with a couple of other students, one of whom works in the same centre. She says the opportunity to share experiences helps.  Sometimes you feel a bit like a silly person because you can’t do online. It’s nice to hear from other students that online is not for them either and you are not alone.  Leah has been using the Charles Sturt library space occasionally for study and reports that it has been very busy there. She feels many people like her find it difficult to study at home, in a place where they normally relax or in an environment that may not have the space for study. For others, she feels, it may be the mental shift i.e. if you are at the university then you are in the study zone. If you are lucky she says you might even get a room with a whiteboard in the library and can use that to mind map and brainstorm.

Teacher presence: virtual & real

What has worked well for Leah is that her lecturing staff have been amazing, understanding, empathetic and interpersonal and have connected in with her by phone when she indicated that she was struggling. Being told to take her time to do an assessment and get it in when she was ready was a massive relief to her. All her lecturers have been very understanding and very willing to extend deadlines.

Holly has found the regular announcements from lecturers to be vital in keeping her on track with due dates and in understanding what is happening and where she should be up to with her subjects.

In summing up the session James says “It hasn’t been worst experience but it’s definitely not something I would want to continue for all subjects.  My major preference is on-campus study.  Asked what has worked his advice to lecturers is mainly the interactive element, run the class like you are in the room and make it interactive.  Talk to the students not at them.

Why is this an important learning & teaching story?

For many of us who teach online students, our approach during the COVID19 period has been simply to offer our on-campus students what we have offered our online students i.e. the one directional delivery of the subject via Adobe Connect.  What’s different though is that these on-campus students chose on-campus study because they are seeking connection and interaction. Viewing their experience potentially helps us think about how we can effectively deliver “on-campus” classes in online mode.  We can also encourage students to connect with each other outside of the classroom to provide support and perhaps even integrate wellbeing check-ins into the delivery inviting students to share their methods for keeping on track with study.

To summarise for further reflection on learning and teaching practice:

  • it would seem that Zoom is definitely the winning technology for online delivery when lecturers keep the cameras and microphones enabled and interact with the student.
  • Regular and clear communication regarding where students should be up to in the subject, assessment dates, tasks and other key information is useful for keeping students on track.
  • Flexibility and empathy around students’ individual challenges and personal circumstances is also crucial.
  • For students themselves having a designated place to study and connecting in with other students was important.