Lecture halls across the globe have been left empty by the coronavirus outbreakTheonlysilentbob/Wikimedia

Covid-19 has ushered unprecedented changes in the teaching of university students. In light of the University committing to online-only lectures for the forthcoming academic year, Varsity has spoken to subject and campaign representatives to understand how students have received the vastly different learning environment which has emerged in Cambridge's first online term. 

The experiences of staff members will be explored more explicitly in a later article. 

Lectures

Lecture provision in the past term has varied greatly between subjects, from ‘minor technical issues’ to a reported case of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES)  failing to upload them. Georgia Geekie, AMES’ undergraduate representative, explains: “We were meant to have had a number of revision lectures by now but they have not been organised”. 

Further, accessing those lectures which have been put online has been problematic for students without stable internet access. Farid Aletomeh, the second-year representative for  Economics mentioned “a student from China who required VPNs and one who suffered from regular internet blackouts”. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) can allow users to bypass the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and access censored websites. VPNs, while not illegal in China, must be officially approved before distribution. 

Despite these negatives, many representatives mentioned students enjoying the flexibility of not having a rigid lecture timetable. “Not having to wake up for 9am is a big plus” explains Eesa Ali, Physics IB representative. 

However, this has led to some teachers delivering longer lectures; some in Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) were “significantly longer than an hour” as they had previously been when face to face. Mirte Kuijpers, CDB representative, explains the divided response to this: “Personally I appreciate the extra content...some people have the opposite reaction”. 

Other forms of teaching, such as small-group language seminars, have also been longer in lockdown. A frustrated second year MML student said “some of my classes have been lasting record amounts of time: just because I don't have anywhere to go, doesn't mean I want classes to take up twice the amount of time they normally would.”

For STEM students, this term has come with a drastic reduction in contact hours due to the loss of practicals. This has been so severe that the Times has reported planning drawn up by some universities, including Cambridge, which could involve some STEM students returning to campus months before arts students.  The University denies this is the case.

STEM departments have dealt with this in different ways. Some have uploaded recorded demonstrations, whilst some have replaced practicals with online activities, such as summarising and presenting research papers, and others have omitted them entirely. According to Jasvin Kaur, student representative on the Faculty Board of Biology “the provision of practicals has varied, with some subjects being outstanding”. 

This has not been the case in IA Physics, where practicals usually contribute 25% of a student’s grade. Jeppe Klitgaard, student representative, says “despite the Physics Department’s promise to provide recorded demonstrations to compensate for missed practicals’ they have not been uploaded."

"I have flagged this as an issue at the consultative committee meeting [...] but have not yet seen any action on it [...] this has been a source of frustration to some students, who are worried about quality of teaching in experimental physics”.  At the time of writing, the demonstrations were still yet to be uploaded.

Pastoral Support

The pastoral support offered by Departments across the University echoes the disparity in the provision of teaching. A survey sent to Human, Social, and Political Science (HSPS) students, expected to complete 4 exams in 5 hour windows this term, received over 190 responses. Andrew Osipov, Politics and International Studies (POLIS) subject representative, which includes representing some HSPS students, says he was “quite shocked by some of the anonymous submissions”. 

One HSPS student demanded that “departments show empathy over a blind desire for an ostensibly futile and unreachable academic rigour" while another felt that “the focus on 'academic rigour' seems to be obfuscating just how important student welfare is and how much pressure this epidemic will place on it, as well as how varied students' homes will be in terms of quality as a learning environment."

HSPS students were encouraged to log disruptions they faced this term, allowing them to be accounted for. On this, one student said “It is not possible to ‘keep a log of any disruption'...the disruption is constant.”

The response of the HSPS department to strains caused by Covid-19, described by another student as “compromising their mental and physical health” is in stark contrast to other departments. 

Having recently suffered a loss due to Covid-19, the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNAC)  made students aware of grief counselling and did “everything they can to flex workload and deadlines to give students and staff space to grieve” according to Miles Hawkley, subject representative. He described their response as embodying “supreme tact and compassion”. 

“We couldn't ask for more...the strength of the bonds in our department never cease to amaze and move me”, he said. 

Supervisions

Supervisions across a variety of subjects seem to have taken place more or less successfully aside from the occasional WIFI issue. Jasvin Kaur said that “many forms of teaching, including recorded lectures and supervisions, have been just as they would if in Cambridge”. This sentiment was shared throughout STEM subjects. 

A number of representatives even stated that being able to pause and rewind lectures had enabled some students to get more out of both lectures and supervisions.

Languages students also reported being fairly satisfied with online learning this term. In AMES, Georgia Geekie felt “the general response has been positive” and most have “not noticed any significant issues during this transition”. The same is true for a second year MML student who says “it has been a good experience overall” noting breakout rooms in Zoom as a particularly useful feature for language learning.

Humanities students seem to have faced more problems with supervisions. An ASNAC student noted that “often articles and crucial texts just aren’t online. This means that we’re very limited in what we can access and has made reading for supervision work and revision quite hard.”

A student representative for English described the difficulty of getting the most out of online classes in the study of drama. They pointed out that in “the study of drama, essentially a communicable and shared experience, the inability to communicate in person with peers is definitely very far from ideal”.

Staff have also faced issues, particularly those who are homeschooling young children. Some supervisions have been interrupted by young children walking in, while one supervisor was having to teach year 3 maths at the same time as teaching the supervision. 

Motivation

Many students described the difficulties of staying motivated during the term without the usual structure. One rep suggested that “learning is highly dependent on one’s self-motivation”, something which could present an issue for some given the length of time lockdown is expected to go on for. One HSPS student said, “the thought of not leaving the house for the foreseeable future makes self-motivation a significant challenge.”

This has been a particular challenge for English and History students. Unlike most other faculties, non-finalists in both subjects have been given a dramatically reduced exam timetable. One 2nd year historian said “it’s been particularly difficult to motivate myself to do work when I’m covering the same four topics every week for three months”, adding “I think it would have been much better if they gave us more coursework style examination”.

An English student said that while “everyone is really grateful to the reps and faculty for not giving us the pressure of exam at home it does leave the line between Easter vacation and term a bit blurry”.

The issues described by students don’t affect all equally. Class Act, a CUSU campaign supporting and representing students from disadvantaged backgrounds, criticised the university for “forgetting that the university student body is diverse, with many of us having complex individual needs that cannot be addressed by blanket instructions to ‘go home’ and ‘maintain academic rigour.”


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They suggested that problems arose from an inconsistent or insufficient application of the University’s own guidance. For example, while the University policy “ensures that accommodation should still be available for those who need it, many students have had their requests to return rejected by their colleges or have faced incredible levels of resistance.”

As Easter term concludes, and the shock of the sudden onset of Covid-19 dulls, students are beginning to scrutinise the response of their universities to this pandemic. A petition calling for reimbursements of tuition fees due to ‘strikes and Covid-19’ has over 340,000 signatures, and was recently discussed in Parliament

The National Union of Students is also campaigning for a ‘safety net’, giving students the chance to do ‘this year of their course again, or to have their debt and tuition or college fees written off and reimbursed’. Pressure is mounting on universities, including Cambridge, to provide an adequate, and financially justified, substitute for in-person teaching.

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