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5th March 2021

Home or Away: Online learning isn’t ideal wherever you are

Laura Thompson speaks to students about the difficulties of online learning both at home and in student accommodation
Home or Away: Online learning isn’t ideal wherever you are
Photo: Bradshaw79 @ Wikimedia commmons (Adapted)

Online learning has provided us with the opportunity to work from home this year. For some, this has been a massive benefit, allowing to save on rent whilst spending more time with family. For others, not returning to university has had a negative impact on their mental health and motivation when it comes to university work.

Some students have been lucky enough to continue their placements. One midwifery student shared with me how useful their current placement scheme has been extremely beneficial. Not only for their learning, but for occasionally getting them out of the house!

The general opinion I have received when asking students, however, is overwhelmingly negative. Most people feel they have had no choice when it comes to their current living situation. Some genuinely do not. 

Many international students cannot return to their UK accommodation. They are struggling in particular with time differences when it comes to scheduled meetings. One final year PPE student I spoke to has most of their meetings from 9pm onwards due to the time difference. It is incredibly hard to be motivated so late into the evening. Most students are struggling to find the motivation during their normal working hours. Sadly, many are being forced into a vampiric lifestyle to suit the university’s timetable.

Studying at home has caused no end of damage when it comes to students’ motivation. Many shared very emotional experiences with me. Most longing for a time when they could return to the library, or even their own work space. We tend not to realise what we have until it becomes impossible to have it. Who would have thought we’d be longing for the comfort of the hard wooden chairs of the main library on campus? 

Students who have been able to return to Manchester have also faced no end to problems. Unstable internet and noisy housemates at all hours makes for endless difficulties.

A history student at the University of Manchester told me of a precarious scenario. Before Christmas, their Wi-Fi went off completely, and it was not fixed for a month. While facing the end of semester tests, this poor student and her household had no way to upload their assignments onto the university’s system. They had to submit essays using mobile data and became reliant on the library to get any work done, which was not so easy to access during the January lockdown. What was most heart-breaking about this story was the solutions the university offered – extended deadlines provide very little comfort when you have no idea when you will gain internet access again.

Another first year computer science student told me how they returned to university with full intentions of working better at their own desk in their own room, but reality has proved very different. You’d think it would be easier being closer to the library but, with access still restricted, it’s essentially pointless, as the student put it. It has proved harder than they imagined to work in a flat all alone, with the lack of social interaction has proved more distracting than anything else. Students have gone weeks without any human interaction. This, to some, seems like an ideal scenario. Yet many are feeling the negative effects of this limited socialising. 

Some students had no choice but to return to university. With many parents working from home, there is simply no space for some students at home. Also, many have younger siblings who are being home-schooled. This means there is no room for them to focus, or just be alone to work.

On the opposite of the spectrum, there are people who prefer living at home. For many, the alternative would be living alone. Why pass up pets and family if you are comfortable working at home? Some have just reverted to the working mindset they adopted during A-Levels, studying at the kitchen table.  

In some lectures, I have had to deal with lecturers’ young children being home-schooled in the back of their zoom calls. This is distracting for both the lecturer and the students.

Concentrating at home generally comes across as more difficult for students. Working on campus would prove far easier, and since we are paying for these resources, we might as well use them.

One student who has returned to their private rental house told me how, even though they have live seminars online, they might as well be recorded due to lack of participation. If it wasn’t for housemates, this student would have no human interaction for weeks.

Some students have preferred online lectures. It means they can work to their own schedule, and don’t have to spend time travelling to and from university. It also makes group work easier. Yet, we would still love the option to see people!

Social interaction is what we have missed most these last few months. People are social, and a huge part of the student experience is socialising with other students.

Societies have been trying their best to provide accessible events for everyone. But these online sessions can only go so far. Some have been lucky, having found new online friends this year. One of the most awkward experiences online, many students have been left alone with strangers in breakout rooms.

But there is hope in sight. Boris Johnson has released his ‘roadmap’ for the lifting of lockdown. We will just have to wait and see if, come this summer as proposed, everything goes according to plan. Maybe we will be able to return to some level of normalcy by next academic year.

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