In Response to ‘COVID-19 Forces Universities to Refocus their Vision’

I remember the day I got the news that classes would be entirely online, about three quarters of the way into my spring semester. I had just finished up a group meeting for an upcoming presentation. The first floor of our library – where we met – was nearly empty, apart from a few other clusters of students around us. It was a combination of the silence, in stark contrast to the hushed conversations each about coronavirus surrounding me, that further highlighted the upcoming changes I never expected.

I packed up, said goodbye, and walked to my bus stop. Sitting on the second floor of the double decker bus, I people-watched and daydreamed, happy to have a break from work. About an hour later, I arrived home to a notification in my inbox that read:

“Following recent developments and contingency planning…All teaching activity for taught undergraduate and postgraduate students will be delivered online from Monday 23 March or before where possible…”

In an afternoon, my institution had transitioned to online classes. Little had I known that that group meeting would be the last time I would meet with classmates, study in the library, and let alone be on my university campus.

My first day of graduate school. (Photo: Kenalyn Ang)

From the budding sense of a tight-knit community of fellow students and faculty, to radio silence, for a lot of students the rapid coronavirus-driven shift to a digital university experience doesn’t feel like enough. I am one of those students — a current graduate student who recently moved back home to the United States to finish up the last year of a dual-degree program. To be fair, I can only imagine the work that university staff and professors have done and continue to do to reshape the university experience, on the fly, into something that serves all well and enjoyably. Still, reading “COVID-19 Forces Universities to Refocus their Vision” prompted me to reflect further on my own experience of online learning.

Logistically, COVID-19 has dramatically changed how we attend university. Whether we live at home, need to replace our tech equipment to uphold hours of streaming, or find ourselves locked in to a 12-month lease agreement in an apartment across the country, students of all ages face challenges that are degrading their academic experience. Meanwhile, for a lot of students and many of my program peers, new visa regulations brought on by the virus compromise our education. Unprecedented difficulty in travelling especially harms those without a permanent home near their university or its host country. These complications require students to reassess their professional pursuits, sometimes deferring or cancelling long-standing educational aspirations.

While I did not face any visa restrictions myself, in the wake of the pandemic and the increasing confirmation that my second year would be completely remote and online, I considered cancelling my second year, too. I was fortunate to be in a dual-degree program which if cut short, would mean just getting the degree from my first-year program and school. Cancelling my second year would free up my schedule, allow me to stay in the UK (where I studied my first year) for longer, spend time with family and have the time to refocus and begin a new sort of job hunt in the midst of a pandemic. After much thought, I ultimately realized that while the university experience I was expecting would never be, I could continue with my program living with my family, spending more time with my parents and helping them out. My second year of grad school would not include school events or as much exploration of the city, but instead offered me more time to reconnect and catch up with my family and friends in the area after five years abroad.

Nonetheless, the university experience as we knew it has been fundamentally shifted, emotionally as well as physically. While I enjoy living at home, the now-digitized university seems to have lost its human edge and the ease of collaboration fundamental to academic learning. Arguably, for some students it is easier to conduct individual, at-home research than to recreate the environment of a group project, discussion, or in-class teaching. I spent the entire spring season researching and writing my dissertation on my own, apart from a handful of Zoom meetings with my adviser sprinkled into the first months of lockdown. As such, the digital university experience feels more linear, even simpler. I no longer need to leave the house 45 minutes early, and I save money drinking coffee at home. On the other hand, my library books are an ocean away from my institution, and I can’t help but think about all those workshops and events cancelled (yes, I booked in advance) with no new date in sight.  

And university really is an experience that is lived out through rituals. As a result of COVID-19, people are forcibly cut out of one another’s lives. Conversations are spliced into timed calls, while experiences like club meetings, sports practice, live performances and more are essentially taken away as a result of being remote. That vibrant community of peers, united by a shared interest in a subject, and more deeply, by the spirit of their institution, is halted. The hubbub pervading local hangouts and natural transitions from class to lunch with classmates are nonexistent. Before COVID-19, processes of communication and relating to one another increasingly were shaped by digital technology. Now, there is greater — or even complete –dependency on communication via tech. Was this shift too fast? Is the digital university retractive, and stunting the theme of ‘possibility’ so fundamental to university learning?

University of Southern California campus. (Photo: Fran/Unsplash)

Students who focus on what they have lost out on don’t see the current digital learning environment as enough. The digital world has cut relationships short, redirected our routines and rituals, forced lessons to pre-schedule their endings, and imperfectly tipped the balance between research and teaching. And isn’t that what the university experience prides itself in? Fostering relationships, guiding the lessons of lifelong learning, and maintaining a harmonious blend of excellent research and instruction? To me, collaboration, communication and people are at the heart of universities, and all my best memories as a student have involved some sort of shared experience. Taking that group project as an example, working with these classmates in March was a fantastic opportunity to meet new people in other tracks of my department. Together, we represented three continents and a range of experiences that led us to our course. Indeed, in all my academic experiences, one of the things I most fully enjoyed was the in-person chance to connect with people different from me.

Yet as I enter the fourth week of what I expect to be a full year of online graduate courses, I see how our digital university experiences could be enough. I appreciate the adaptations that have been made by my professors and universities, and I am grateful to be able to finish my last year of school. From going remote to having our final presentation cancelled, my groupmates and I formed a bond, partially based on the shared experience of staying on our toes amidst an ever-changing situation. As a result of the pandemic, we remain good friends now.

Amidst our “new normal,” I urge students who feel similarly to continue to adapt to the new rituals you will have to construct. Continue to make the effort and to take the initiative to learn, perhaps even more so today than ever before. This is an exciting time to make new routines and habits with your schedule, and to learn to express and communicate with others in new ways. In online class, keep engaging, even when talking to your laptop’s camera in your room on Zoom seems lackluster. An engaged and involved class is a better experience for everyone involved.

(Photo: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash)

I also believe that universities can implement a variety of tools in the current circumstance to help facilitate students’ involvement. It could be helpful for faculty to maintain forums where students can discuss and deliberate. Using digital capabilities like screenshare to help demonstrate lessons and tools to students and finding ways to enliven the online learning experience through videos and new techniques developed with digital technology as its focus can improve the online learning environment too.

For professors who aren’t the most tech savvy, consider learning the basics of Windows Paint or Adobe Fresco! As a student currently on the receiving end of some uninterpretable (though very endearing) diagrams, it could be a much more dynamic experience with a clearer visual aid. I also think that with lessons online, maintaining communication throughout the week is more crucial than before. Keeping in slightly increased contact than before gives a class a more active status in students’ minds. This can help the class be relevant and dynamic, repositioning it at the forefront of students’ thoughts rather than a mere two-hour pre-recorded lecture once a week.

Many have noted the way courses are designed and taught matter for a student’s success. As such, university staff can take this time to refresh their pedagogy with a newfound focus on ways of communicating, delivering material, and facilitating discussion.

Rather than allowing technology to divide and isolate us from others, students, faculty and staff can connect and collaborate based on shared experiences learning digitally. University communities can share similar and different experiences and tap into a newfound drive to work towards a more secure future post-COVID. It’s just a matter of time and doing what humanity has always been so good at: adapting and adjusting to any social changes encountered.

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Kenalyn Ang

Kenalyn Ang is the Social Science Communications Intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Kenalyn is interested in all things related to narrative communication. Her research focuses on identity-making and representation through the written word, as well as through creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

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