Before the pandemic hit, I had read that the future of higher education would involve a shift from the university as a physical location of learning to a digital offering that came to you, wherever you were. I remember thinking: well, that will never happen! Even with the popularity of distance learning and digital education platforms to support in-person learning, I couldn’t imagine a world in which the campus didn’t feature as the hub of resources, networking and socialising. Yet that was exactly the world the pandemic brought us.
In September 2020, my colleagues at Brunel University London and I lamented (over a video call) how hard the coming term was going to be, how our students were losing out, how our teaching wouldn’t translate online. The main pedagogy of my subject, creative writing, is the writing workshop, by which students read and offer feedback on each other’s work. For students new to this discipline, being in a room together, engaging in what can be a nerve-racking activity, felt very important. No online version could replace real human connection, surely?
University is not just a place where teaching and learning happens – it is where young people transition from teenage to adult life, where they feed themselves, do their own laundry, manage their money, find their adult friendship groups. It is where they learn to take charge of their lives.
This was my experience of university, 25 years ago. But, at Brunel, many of the students were already having very different experiences from mine. Some lived at home and commuted across London to classes. Some balanced studying with part-time or not-so-part-time work. Crucially, most had a sophisticated digital literacy, which, in some ways, meant they were far more prepared for online learning than I was.
Here are some of the things that happened in the past two years.
Student attendance improved – in some cases, significantly. With no commute to face, more students logged in to classes – often, I suspect, from bed. Why don’t I know whether or not they were in bed? Because, in the first weeks, many kept their cameras off – until my team decided that talking into an abyss of black screens was awful and introduced a “cameras on” policy.
The chat function in Zoom is an interesting place – students who might be shy to talk in class might not be shy in chat. Sometimes, I struggled to keep up with the speed of their responses.
My day became full of new language: “Let’s Zoom”, “I’ll just screen-share”, “See you on Teams!” On good days, I had 40 students attending fruitful online discussions, giving many responses to my questions and sensitive feedback about each other’s work. But other words and phrases entered my language, too, such as “digital poverty”, which applied to students who didn’t have laptops or an internet connection. One young woman told me that she was sharing her mum’s phone with her three younger siblings, all of them meant to be learning online.
My eyesight got rapidly worse. In December 2020, I appeared on video wearing glasses for the first time.
My colleagues and I curated our video backgrounds to look learned – many sat in front of bookshelves. I seemed always to be moving my washing rack out of sight.
It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. My students seemed to cope with online learning better than my six-year-old son, who languished at home with 155 “outstanding activities” on Seesaw, his primary school’s digital platform. (That is no criticism of primary teachers, who were legendary in their response to delivering online and in-person teaching throughout.)
We have been teaching face-to-face again since September. No mandate was issued on face masks, so the students mainly didn’t wear them. On the first day back – teaching second-year undergraduates, who had studied their entire first year online – there was a buzz in the room. Meeting someone “IRL” is very different from meeting them in a tiny digital box. One student whom I had spent much time talking to over video the previous year surprised me by being really tall.
Students’ experiences of Covid were hugely varied, but I doubt any of them would say they were unaffected. The university’s mental health services are now overrun. Immunocompromised students are still effectively in lockdown. In my life writing module, I asked students to reflect on their experience of the pandemic. Their moving testimonies – on feeling isolated, lonely, their sense of missing out on life – reminded me of how we must take care of our young people and understand that, although lockdown is over, the shadow it has cast endures.
Hannah Lowe is a poet and a senior lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University London