Across faculties, the online learning experience has differed widely. University of Auckland students have reported dramatically different experiences adjusting to the delivery of online education, with some enjoying the shift and others struggling.
Thanks to the advocacy of the Auckland University Students’ Association, the university has adopted a policy of shifting all undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students’ grades up one grade scale this semester. The university is considering all students’ academic performance to be moderately imapired by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the new grade policy, some students are still feeling immense pressure to keep their grade point averages high. Emily*, a Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences first-year student, told Craccum that the stresses of keeping up with her study workload during the lockdown had effects on her mental health. “I was so excited to come to uni and now I feel so stressed out all the time, especially not being around my friends because I am a very social person,” says Emily. “Now with an extra exam on top of all the work I already have I have never felt so stressed in my life.”
The Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences has proposed the introduction of a new ‘Clinical Selection Test’ as part of the faculty’s review of the limitations for entry to clinical programmes. The test, if it passes numerous rounds of approval, will take place in the first week of the second semester – just weeks after the UCAT exam. Associate Professor Bridget Kool, the faculty’s Associate Dean (Academic), has said the test will complement grade point averages in the selection process for clinical programmes. This is just one of the changes the faculty has made as we all navigate a global pandemic.
The ongoing pandemic has also posed unique challenges for the Engineering faculty, as many degrees have an integrated practical component which has been affected by distance learning. With the $170 million newly built Engineering building sitting empty of students and staff, the lack of access to specialist lab equipment and software has been a real challenge for the faculty to navigate.
One anonymous Part IV student I said the ability “to work on hardware projects at home has been a real struggle.” As he doesn’t have a desktop computer, he is forced to settle with running programs on his laptop, which “isn’t built to handle the heavy duty requirements of some of the software [he’s] had to use”.
This sentiment was shared with students at different stages of study. A Part III student told Craccum her labs were “harder to follow along since it’s not as hands on anymore”, while a PhD student also identified his need to conduct experiments as a challenge.
The university’s policy for Alert Level 2 indicates doctoral students may be able to come onto campus or return to the field for research purposes. Following a faculty-wide online learning survey, Associate Dean Teaching and Learning Peter Bier responded to concerns of Part IV students who had their projects affected through inability to access critical software. “ITS [IT Services] have responded quickly and have identified some areas that they are able to improve immediately – particularly with provisioning of resources on virtual machines.”
It appears that laboratory exercises for other undergraduate students will continue through online alternatives at least while remote learning remains in place.
With the undergraduate degree being primarily theory-based, the faculty has been exploring different modes of content delivery to keep students engaged. Following the same survey, Peter Bier reported students had “a preference for shorter clips instead of full-length lectures and live tutorials are also appreciated.” However, he has also observed through the survey that online delivery has resulted in “a negative effect on motivation to study”.
“There seemed to be a number of positive comments showing how much [students] missed in person delivery and being on-campus.”
This was also echoed in the responses of the students I talked to. “I felt consistently concerned about the lack of motivation I was feeling by constantly being in my home environment,” admits one student.
However, on a positive note, they simultaneously recognize the faculty has made significant efforts to smoothen out the effect of the sudden transition. “I feel that the Faculty of Engineering has made a strong effort to deal with the tremendous strain and difficulties of the situation we are in,” I am told by one respondent, who cites lecturers showing “an unexpected and surprising amount of kindness and consideration when prompted.”
Leaving students with a helpful message, Peter Bier shares some of his top study tips from home. This includes writing a to do and to don’t list, asking lecturers for help, maintaining at least some study every day, studying in blocks, keeping a sleeping pattern and watching lectures as soon as they come out.
Aside from Engineering, many other faculties also utilise practical work and projects as learning methods. Faculty of Science students, who would usually take part in physical labs, have had this substituted for online labs. Craccum spoke to two science students who both expressed frustration with the changes. “It would be so much easier to write reports if we were actually doing the labs. Without them it’s much harder to grasp the concepts you are learning,” said one student. “I think a lot of people are not going to do as well as they could this semester.”
The Faculty of Arts has mainly kept in touch with students through mass emails, often linking through to updates on various university websites and highlighting online events (including seminars and drop-in sessions) available for arts students to access. Lecturers were originally encouraged to keep remote learning as simple as possible, and warned against using too many Zoom/live sessions that might mean students would run into issues of accessibility. It seems that some lecturers have adopted live tutorials despite this suggestion, or transitioned their office hours into time for general discussion, others utilising Canvas features to keep the discussion going.
Often lecturers have asked for feedback from students to cater to their interests. Assignments that aren’t suitable for remote study have had to be adapted into new formats or been dismissed, with points distributed to other course assignments. The Tuākana Arts program has also moved online, utilising an online hub with Drop-In Sessions operating from 2-4 every workday. The program has also established a presence on social media, focusing on issues of student wellbeing.
Three students recounted their experiences with remote learning in different departments. “The extensions are being handed out like candy, which is helpful. I had one lecturer cancel a test and move the percentages to other assignments. That was a relief because lockdown started at the same time that was scheduled, but now I feel there’s more weight to later assignments which is stressful,” says one student. “There’s been more administrative work and concentration on course layout rather than content, but I’m pretty happy with the support from lecturers. I haven’t used the faculty resources, but that’s because I haven’t felt the need to access them yet. I also find it easier to keep up with classes when they have live elements, as it’s much easier to feel motivated to work, but I understand that’s an issue of access.”
Another student said that their screen production classes have changed hugely. “Our main frustrations have come from these new assessments as the final one, for me at least, is really difficult to do at home. Having to film on your phone and not have the immediacy face to face support from your peers, usually available during practical group work, when you encounter issues is difficult. It’s now a solo project all the way from pre-production to post. We have been given access to Adobe Premiere Pro, but again I presume some peoples computers can’t run it (that’s assuming people even have home laptops/desktops).” The student also highlighted that issues may arise around technical problems, which involve a level of “digital literacy”.
A postgraduate arts student reported that the support they’ve received has been largely dependent on the Professor facilitating the course. “They’ve been helpful through Zoom meetings and emails, but obviously it’s such a limitation not to be able to drop-in and ask them questions. Postgraduate courses are supposed to be more directed, independent study anyway, but the lack of actual live classes is definitely a hit to my motivation.”
“I’ve accessed a few webinars and sources recommended by the Faculty of Arts, and they were surprisingly helpful for the assignments and research that I’ve been completing. However, I wish there were more constant updates coming via email from the Faculty of Arts because I’ve only caught some essential pieces of information by chance on Facebook. Overall though, they’ve done pretty well in my eyes in the adaptation to remote learning. Every time I’ve needed to get through to the Arts Centre they’ve been helpful and I’m never lost on administrative issues for too long.”
In the Business School, many courses were already being conducted through distance learning prior to the government enforcing domestic lockdown measures. Special arrangements were made for international students who were initially unable to travel to New Zealand due to travel restrictions, and they were still able to access many of the faculty’s undergraduate courses. Since all university activities moved online, domestic student Jeremy* has reported that he has not experienced many difficulties in adapting to the online learning environment. “I haven’t had trouble keeping up with recordings, I’ve just been trying to stay motivated the whole time,” says Jeremy. “The only thing that I’ve noticed is lecturers taking longer than usual to reply to emails but I understand that because of the coronavirus situation that is to be expected”. However, one of the author’s flatmates, who is also a Business School student, is currently watching eight hours worth of lecture recordings at two-times speed – demonstrating that different students have had different experiences of keeping on top of their workloads.
As Craccum reported last week, many courses with practical components have been largely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the Faculty of Education, students have been unable to take part in their practicums. These have been suspended since March but may resume in late July.
The university plans to resume in-person learning activities at the beginning of Semester Two, as long as New Zealand remains at Alert Level 2. However, being forced to adapt to online learning has allowed many tertiary institutions around the world to explore new education opportunities, facilitated through technology. The future of learning may just end up looking different to our pre-COVID experiences.
*Names have been changed