This blog was kindly contributed by Daniel Dipper, a first year History and Politics undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford. You can find Daniel on Twitter @DanielDipper1 .
Having started studying BA History and Politics at Magdalen College, the University of Oxford, in a time like no other, the first term has still been an incredible experience. This article will outline my experience, some of the benefits I have found of online learning and also provide recommendations as to how to address some of the disadvantages of online learning.
In regards to contact time, I receive exactly the same amount of tuition as if COVID had not occurred, though of course much is through an online medium (around ten hours a week – five hours of lectures, two hours of classes and three hours of tutorials). We were provided with a number of live sessions when settling in to answer our questions and I think the lectures have been incredibly useful for providing case study information, making links between key themes for papers and deepen my understanding of subject material. Lectures have been released on a timetable the same as if they were in-person and access to lectures from other History modules has been incredibly useful for broadening my understanding of subjects I am studying. Tutorials have been a great way to raise problems alongside tutors giving pointers for further engagement and are effective opportunities for consolidation. While time is no measure of quality, the fact provision has been maintained as before allows for like-for-like comparisons and means learning is provided in equal measure as before.
I think online lectures have actually been a big benefit of online learning; the online medium is overall good for accessibility (seeing it on your own laptop means the slides are clearly visible and the audio is easier to hear), it allows you to adjust the speed (so you can vary the speed dependant on your understanding) and the lectures are available to watch back on-demand (so allowing you to use them for revision purposes or to watch them at a slightly different time if you have clashing commitments). Some drawbacks for some students have been the provision of lectures from last year which means they contain background noise; this can be a big distraction and can make lectures inaccessible for some students, the same problem these students faced in person. The caption provision has also been very variable – the University has fixed this now by providing a fund to pay for somebody to watch lectures and manually type captions where automatic captions are not suitable. Additionally, you don’t get the face-to-face interaction of speaking to a tutor after the lecture, however many tutors publicise their email address during lectures to allow students to submit questions at the end – of the tutors I have emailed, all have been incredibly helpful. As a consequence, I would suggest with adaptations online lectures offer benefits over in-person lectures and I hope they will continue to be provided post-pandemic.
Tutorials are of course the signature medium of teaching of Oxford and while I have had some in person they translate equally as well to an online format. One worry I had was that technology would interfere in learning, either making it harder or derailing it completely if it went wrong; this has only happened once but was quickly resolved and I particularly liked when one of my tutors created a digital whiteboard of notes which was then emailed out to us afterwards. I think the small groups facilitate these sessions being able to run as before. It is also very helpful for my Quantification in History tutorials where we use RStudio, as screensharing allows us to see the teacher’s screen while we can still see our own to check our code or to make notes. I would still suggest that I prefer in-person tutorials because of the interaction you can have with other students, but online tutorials have certainly been of a good quality.
A massive benefit I have found of virtual events is being able to access so much more than I would have been able to in person – virtual events mean I can go to a Tortoise Media ThinkIn before breakfast, watch a pre-recorded lecture in the morning before doing some reading, go to a virtual Oxford Careers Service event at lunchtime, attend my tutorial (in-person or online) in the early afternoon and then go to a virtual seminar in the late afternoon. The vast number of events ran by the University, from presentations from leading worldwide scholars at the Early Modern Britain seminar that nicely complement my course, to book launches and presentations of papers, to panel discussions, run daily throughout term. I’ve found these a great way to gain new perspectives on what I study and the flexibility afforded in my timetable really allows me to make the most of these opportunities for further engagement. This combined with what is on offer from societies means I always have plenty to get involved with. The vast array of events makes my learning experience so much more beyond the core provision of lectures and tutorials and are an enjoyable addition to my weekly schedule.
Even though much of my teaching was online (I think I had about 5 hours of teaching face-to-face over the whole term), I still think living in Oxford was a valuable experience. There’s the ‘soft skills’ side of organising yourself, but also the facilities offered by being there. I found the libraries great places to study with the availability of books incredibly handy – the only books I purchased in the whole term were some general course books for my British History paper and even then the College paid for those through a book grant. 24-hour access to my College library means I was able to work at times that suited me and it meant I was able to adjust my timetable to manage my fibromyalgia. There’s also the wider experience of being able to walk in the College grounds, dine in Hall, go to formal dinners and getting to know my household which are incomparable to home learning. I am not sure there are ways of truly responding to those points for students starting the term at home other than through virtual social events – for example, during the November lockdown, we had a ‘Lockdown Lifeline’ series of events ran by the President’s husband, including Kahoots, short story clubs and film clubs; it can only be hoped that similar events will be run to ensure students don’t feel socially isolated. I think it is a shame (though understandable) that most university students can’t start the term in-person and I think it is important that universities try to ensure there are events for students to attend so that the feeling of missing out is minimised.
The biggest drawback of the COVID restrictions and online learning is a lack of opportunity to form social connections with course mates. Due to COVID I barely know anybody outside of college, though I am lucky to know a few through being on Opportunity Oxford, an access programme where I got to meet students from similar backgrounds to my own. While I know quite a few more people in College, there’s still limited opportunity to get to know people compared with in-person learning and I would say this is the area most suffering currently. Some of us have started sharing readings from the reading list and no doubt, as we settle into Oxford, we will find more time to consider further avenues for social connection, however I think this is also something that should possibly be facilitated at a College or University level. Universities should try to consider how to safely facilitate interaction of students studying on the same course and then ensure that social opportunities continue throughout the year more generally.
Overall, my university experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive and I think that this experience with online learning opens new possibility for when we return to ‘normal’ – blended learning including some online lecture provision, use of digital whiteboards as takeaways and some conferences and seminars remaining virtual to increase access (both for students and for speakers who would not have been able to attend in person). With caption funding and new content being created from home instead of a lecture theatre, accessibility of teaching content can further increase and hopefully it will encourage course facilitators to consider what is the best medium to maximise learning for each individual activity – I certainly don’t believe that everything in person is always best and there is an exciting opportunity to look into best use of online learning spaces to facilitate collaboration and community. What COVID has hit hardest is the social aspect of University, both in learning and more widely and so far I don’t think there has been a response of equivalence to fully mitigate this. This is therefore where more thinking needs to be focused because the opportunity for innovative solutions should not be missed. I don’t believe though that the in-person university degree is dead; far from it, I think its value has only been reinforced through the experience of this pandemic.
HEPI has previously published a report comparing the student experience at Oxbridge and other higher education institutions.