Jacinta Humphrey

Studying in the virtual world

Iris Hickman and Courtney Taylor (La Trobe University)

ertiary education institutions have been among those greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some subjects were cancelled, and the remainder moved all face to face teaching—laboratory, workshops and lectures—online. This left us, university students, studying from home; learning critical career skills in the virtual world. We had to adapt to the new teaching methods in isolation while also worrying about the imminent health emergency, uncertain financial situations and our future careers, while juggling work and family commitments. 

Like many students, we completed this study year at the kitchen table or in communal spaces. We watched lectures and completed assignments on slow computers with small screens, and in share-houses with poor internet connections. While these difficulties were already enough to make study seem insurmountable, we, and many of our peers, found it difficult to engage with online learning and stay focused through hours of screen time. 

Many lecturers worked tirelessly to improve our online learning experience. They recorded experiments from home, attempted to make online lectures interactive, and offered more support than they were likely paid for. We praise and thank them for their mammoth efforts this year. Despite this, online learning does not compare to face-to-face study. 

As students nearing the end of our degrees, we are lucky we have established relationships within the university community that provided integral support throughout this year. It seems unlikely these important relationships could be forged in the clunky and sterile world of Zoom, thereby diminishing the university experience for new students. The insular and passive nature of online learning also makes it difficult to engage collectively and learn from peers. This was exemplified in subjects this semester where we did not know any other students enrolled and found it hard to engage with the content and learn without the social encouragement and discussions. 

One aspect we missed most while not on campus was the incidental interactions previously taken for granted. Studying online does not offer the opportunity for casual, organic conversations with peers, mentors and lecturers. These interactions allow us to develop social and professional networks; both important for job prospects post-graduation. Many of the discussions we did have over Zoom were stilted and exhausting; and, in our classes, participation was typically minimal. 

The deficiencies of online learning are especially pertinent for ecology students. Key ecological skills, such as flora and fauna surveys and species identification, can only be effectively learnt in hands-on practical classes or in the field. These skills are highly sought after from potential employers. However, this year we haven’t been able to participate in any volunteer work or field trips. 

Gaining practical experience has not only been critical throughout our degree, it has also been a highlight, making us more active members in the university community. A second-year plant diversity and ecology subject was particularly formative for us both. This subject was challenging and engaging, involving weekly lab classes and a five-day field trip to the Wimmera region in western Victoria. We consider this a turning point in our studies, where we chose to pursue careers in ecology. This field trip exposed us to some of Victoria’s amazing biodiversity and fundamental ecological survey methods. The opportunity to be in the field with experts who are passionate about understanding and conserving these systems was invaluable. As a result of the pandemic, students enrolled in this course in 2020 missed such experiences. 

The positive aspects of online learning must also be acknowledged: accessibility, flexibility, and decreased travel and the associated costs. However, we found the negatives—lack of community, decreased engagement, and difficulty communicating online—far outweighed the positives. We didn’t learn as effectively or thoroughly online as in person. Interestingly, this is unlikely to be reflected in our grades, which have been above average this year. This is concerning as grades are an important metric used by universities to track student experience and the success of online delivery. 

As we move into “COVID normal”, hopefully universities can return to regular operations and students can make up for the skills they have missed out on this year. Unfortunately, some universities have indicated that online and mixed-mode delivery will continue in order to cut costs. If so, labour-intensive lab and field classes are at risk of being partially or entirely removed from the curriculum. This presents a grim prospect for future generations of ecologists. 

Photo credit: 2020 ‘Ecology in Isolation’ winner Jacinta Humphrey

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