As the country began the slow process of crawling out of national lockdown in April, we got the news that for the remainder of our MA, our classes would continue to be taught online.
For some, I imagine that news was upsetting. For others, I imagine there were sighs of relief at not having to venture back onto campus.
For me? Honestly, it was a bit of a mixed bag.
Having no option but to learn purely online through lockdown has been an experience I hope no future cohorts have to repeat in the coming years. I wanted to write about my experience, how I’ve personally found it and how I think continuing with a hybrid approach is something that’s been long overdue in higher education.
A new learning experience
I graduated from my undergraduate degree from the University of Sunderland in 2019. During that time, there was no such thing as ‘hybrid learning’ – our course was structured with 3 one-hour lectures, and 3 two hour workshops per week, on campus. And it worked, in theory.
Other universities had already adopted some kind of digitalisation within their structure, be that through lecture recordings, some online lessons etc. Because let’s face it, not every student learns in the same way, and although the in-person lecture/workshop model has been, and no doubt will continue to be the preferred method of teaching for some, it felt like at our university, having somewhat of a digitalised element to the courses was perhaps a little overdue.
Then Covid struck.
Adapt and overcome
For the first part of our first semester during my MA, we adopted a hybrid approach – lectures were on campus for 2/3 modules, and the rest was all done online. It was nice to be able to see some of my other class members in person – but social distancing, mask wearing and an eagerness not to linger on campus longer than was needed set somewhat of a barrier.
Our class was also split in two, and with some members of our particular group stuck at home in different parts of the country or in different parts of the world, it was difficult to recreate that typical group setting you usually see inside the classroom.
I’m a big social person, I thrive on chatting and bouncing ideas around, and that’s one area which I think purely online learning cannot replicate. When you’re sitting in front of a person, ideas can flow freely. But when you’re sitting with your finger over the unmute button, waiting to see if someone else is going to unmute first, then the silence goes on too long, and it becomes uncomfortable, and no one wants to speak, and then the moment has gone and you move on. It just doesn’t work as a form of free-flowing ideas.
We’re making up the social etiquette for this new digital landscape as we a go along, but no one’s written the rule book quite yet.
Even in break out rooms or smaller group work settings where mics tend to stay unmuted, it’s a lot easier for some to sit and continue to say nothing. There’s no encouragement when you can’t look your fellow student in the eye, no repercussions to not chipping in.
And I get it. Not everyone is comfortable in social situations and many find it hard to speak up. You’d think having the anonymity of a webcam-less world would lessen that anxiety. On the contrary, I think sometimes it heightens it. And I can’t quite put my finger on why.
It’s easy to forget that not everyone is in the same boat. I’m lucky in the sense that I own my own home, have a designated office space I can use uninterrupted, have a good PC set up and access to resources should I need them.
But there are a multitude of students who aren’t so lucky. Many who are stuck in halls, far away from home, with limited equipment, no quiet space to study. Many who are living at home with relatives who are also working from home, fighting for counter space.
Stress, anxiety, constant background noise, working from tiny laptops or tablets – it all adds up, and in this sense it’s easy to understand why so many aren’t keen to hit the unmute button.
Richard Bailey writes about his experience with this from the opposite perspective, as a teacher, and it’s clear to see the frustration in a drop in participation sits firmly within both camps, but he also suggests it’s more than just lockdown to blame and instead, it’s developing into a generational issue.
In that sense, I think going forward, it’ll always be important to have a base of in-person social interaction within a classroom environment for students. I think it’s rare that group work will ever be on the list of favorite activities, but having another person in front of you to make connections with and bounce ideas off is an invaluable part of the university experience and can be a massive confidence boost, particularly within the field of marketing and PR where social interaction and the ability to converse and pass ideas around with colleagues or clients is such an integral part of the job.
A step in the right direction for mental health
Speaking of confidence, there is a way in which online learning can be a massive benefit. It’s no secret that throughout the last year, many people’s mental health has taken an absolute battering, and I’m not too shy to admit I’m one of that number.
Despite the fact we haven’t had to step foot into a classroom, on some days I’ve felt unable to even jump into an online session, despite the fact I could, in theory, sit with my mic muted and choose not to contribute. But that isn’t me, I’m not that kind of person. So some days, I had to stay away. The beauty of the virtual environment meant that I was able to go back in my own time and re-watch the sessions I missed, and this is something I’d like to see more openly adapted for future cohorts.
I know there are many who would worry this would see in-person engagement drop, but from both being a student and working briefly in higher education, it seems to me that in-person engagement is dropping regardless for a whole range of reasons, and a bunch of students are missing out on vital conversation that you just don’t get from lecture slides alone. Is having 24/7 access to recorded lectures the answer to this?
Helping to mould us as professionals
One of the key competencies of any PR or marketing professional is the ability to communicate. To talk openly, be that to colleagues, clients or the public. Some people will always find that easy, be that virtually or in-person, and some people will struggle daily to express themselves.
I think a blended approach to learning, giving people the opportunity to flourish in whichever setting they find themselves more comfortable in, yet still encouraging them to push themselves those settings where they might find themselves feeling less confident, gives us the best of both worlds.
The world has changed, and how businesses communicate has evolved with it. Blended learning can help us to adapt too, but the student’s still have to do their part.
One phrase that’s always stuck with me throughout my studies is ‘you get back what you put in’, and I think for subjects like PR, that’s never been more true. If you aren’t a natural communicator, you have to use this time to push yourself, speak up more in class, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion on a controversial topic, don’t be scared to tell someone you disagree, and explain why.
Sitting in silence may seem like the easy option at the time, but those opportunities to practice finding your voice won’t stick around forever, and with the world changing as quickly as it is, we need all the practice we can get!
As students look set to return to campus’ across the country from May 17th, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction from both students and teachers.
How do you feel about virtual learning? Have you found it easy to speak up in class, or have you struggled? Would you prefer to learn at your own pace and have access to recorded lectures? Are you a teacher and worry about engagement or attendance?
Would love to hear your thoughts!
Until next time,
Banner image source – https://unsplash.com/photos/9moikpaufvg