Online Learning – OurWarwick
OurWarwick

Online Learning

Last year, we students were forced to change our ways, from frolicking around on campus daily to secluding ourselves like hermits. And like the rest of society, we had to become tech-savvy whether we liked it or not.

(I tried. I tried to resist the lure of Zoom – for some unfathomable reason – and I failed.)

As a CS student, I can’t help but be academically interested in how this is all panning out.  

To whoever forced us into this large-scale experiment on online learning (I’m looking at higher beings or whoever is responsible for this pandemic), you deserve a kick in the shins… but I would also like to share notes.

What a time to be alive. What a time to be a CS student.

I thought I might talk about what it’s been like learning online. In the Department of Computer Science (DCS), we students have the following arrangement:

  • Synchronous and asynchronous online lectures
  • A mix of online and in-person* seminars / labs

*Though of course, in lockdown, all our seminars and labs are now online.

Lectures

In ye olde days, lectures were a standard part of a university student’s life. Day after day, hundreds of intellectual sponges sat together in lecture theatres with the common goal of absorbing as much information as we could from the lecturer. Unfortunately, I had absorption capacity of a block of lead during 9am lectures.

Now, lectures are a combination of videos and Microsoft Teams meetings. The good news is that I do not have to attempt to absorb knowledge at 9am.

Asynchronous Lectures

One thing about the traditional set up for lectures is that they are quite passive – the lecturers talk, and the students listen. We have had some lecturers in our department modernise it by including interactive stuff like polls/quizzes, but the fact that there can be over 80 people in a lecture makes interactivity a challenge.

Now, the bulk of the content is being delivered through asynchronous online lectures, which are videos recorded by the lecturer and posted for us to watch in our own time. Each week, we get new material to watch between the synchronous sessions.

Advantages of this arrangement:

  • I can pause, rewind and even speed up lectures to my heart’s content to match my brain processing speed
  • I don’t have to watch these at 9am (did I mention this already?)
  • Beautiful notes. Absolutely stunning.

Challenges posed by this arrangement:

  • As these are to be watched in our own time, effective time management is very, very necessary
  • I miss seeing people in lectures 🙁

I have been trying to manage my space and time better – I’ve written about it here. You can also check out this post by Ruth, which is packed with useful tips. Socially, I’ve had to put more effort into arranging times to catch up with my friends.

Synchronous Lectures

For each module, we also have synchronous lectures. These are live sessions via Microsoft Teams, which are one of the main opportunities we have to interact with the lecturer (though we are always welcome to send emails).

How these sessions have been delivered depends on the lecturer to suit the module. They often involve a summary and discussion around the module content delivered in the asynchronous lectures, including quizzes and exam-like questions.

Apart from the occasional incidents in which lecturers accidentally mute themselves (such drama!) I’m impressed with the lack of technical difficulties we’ve had.

Advantages of this arrangement:

  • These sessions can be more interactive than pre-covid lectures, which is nice
  • Having something timetabled gives some critical structure to the week

Challenges posed by this arrangement:

  • The 9ams are back (but I actually need this to force me to wake up at a reasonable time)
  • I still miss seeing people in lectures 🙁

I use the opportunity to text my friends as if we were attending the lecture in person.

Labs and Seminars

These are small teaching group sessions. Seminars are the closest we get to a school classroom setting, where teaching assistants go through the answers to worksheets that have been released during the week. As this is CS, we also have labs that involve programming (no chemical explosions here, sadly).

In covid times, though not in lockdown, we have been alternating between online and on-campus labs every week. The online sessions are delivered via Teams.

In some modules, we would, under normal circumstances, be working on the lab computers in DCS, especially if certain things needed to be set up e.g. virtual machines. Thankfully, we are able to access the DCS computers remotely, which is something that I’ve been doing quite a lot this year.

The verdict

It’s been a year of new experiences.

Last March, who would have thought that we would have online exams? This will be the second year in which we are taking exams using the university’s online exams platform, AEP.

I think that one of the greatest challenges of learning online hasn’t actually been learning part, but the social part. My style of socialising was catching people between lectures and around campus to catch up, which is obviously something that’s now missing. Now, more than ever, it’s important to reach out to people and arrange that time to socialise, even if it’s over text or video chat.

It’s been really great that despite moving online, we still get lots of support from our department. Office hours have been replaced by emails and Teams messages.

Overall, I do want to get back to campus. However, there are actually a couple of good things that have emerged from this experiment in online learning, and I hope that the best bits are carried forward.

The cover photo is an actual photo of me attempting to get into a Teams meeting at 9am in the morning.

Just kidding. Cover image by Luidmila Kot from Pixabay 

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