Why online lectures sum up this term

Comment University/Local Issues

Image Description: Corpus Christi students study outside in the Front Quadrangle.

This week saw a dramatic announcement by the University of Cambridge. For the next academic year, all lectures will be online. This decision swiftly follows a similar move by Manchester University to shift all next term’s lectures online. Cambridge maintain that physical lectures would only put students and lecturers at risk. Instead, the university will also look to host smaller teaching groups in person. Though only following relevant social distancing requirements.

Hitherto, Oxford has kept quiet on its intentions for next year’s lectures. Nonetheless – in the current climate – it would be unlikely that Oxford would not take similar measures.  For the University has always insisted that the health and safety of its students is its number one priority. And it is right to act following government guidelines.

Currently, the world is facing a new viral threat that is rapidly transforming the way we live. This virus has left the entire nation in the grips of a collective trauma, with so many families losing loved ones to this horrible disease. Redundancies and unemployment are on the rise – especially so in the US – and the psychological and emotional impact are only starting to bear out.

The University has always insisted that the health and safety of its students is its number one priority.”

Therefore, Oxford has acted commendably to support its students through this time of extraordinary uncertainty. The transition to a remote term has been rapid. Moreover, the implementation of virtual tutorials and a plethora of reading material put online has been equally astounding. Undoubtedly, Oxford has tried its level best to establish as much continuity and stability as possible. 

This term, of course, has not been without its complications. Technical issues have made this a very trying term for some. Volatile wifi, sound quality and lack of remote access to reading material have clouded the successes of this virtual endeavour. Nonetheless, the University has ensured the availability of relevant funds – book grants and technological equipment – to help those hit the hardest.

Oxford has acted commendably to support its students through this time of extraordinary uncertainty.”

Tutors, on the whole, have been understanding of the challenges of studying from home for such an extended period. Flexible essay and assignment deadlines, as well as guidance on open-book exams, have notably demonstrated this attitude of care. Furthermore, Microsoft Teams and Zoom have revolutionised the tutorial format. Students from across the country and the globe have been taking part in rigorous intellectual exchanges with their tutors. And all from the relative comfort and distance of their homes. Old fashioned tutors have been fast-tracked into the new digital age – the age of letter-writing and physical notice-boards looks further remote.

Nonetheless, establishing work-place continuity is no remedy for the other issues that lockdown has exposed. Namely, our need to socialise. Many students, now, cannot see family members. That is especially so if grandparents have to self-isolate. And then there is the prolonged physical estrangement from university friends. Close-knit subject groups and staircase families now find themselves on the fringes of another’s laptop screen. Hopes of reclining on the famous crisp green lawns on sunny afternoons, with blossoming lawns and the sweet succulence of the flowerbeds, are gone. Virtual socialising, mock-pub crawls, pub quizzes and the like never quite cut the mustard.

The age of letter-writing and physical notice-boards looks further remote.”

Contrariwise, the Union’s ever-impressive assortment of esteemed public figures, singers, artists, and sportspeople have provided many insightful podcasts. However, being physically present in the Great Hall and witnessing the clamour of the Thursday-night debates is a feat hard to match. Even the most innovative technology falls short. Still, the Union has done an admirable job of trying to make this term as best as possible for its members.

Which leads me onto lectures. The Panopto recordings have been something of a revelation, notably in restoring some modernity to the Classics faculty. You can listen to them any time, any place. From the relative slumber of your bedroom to the sunny outdoors of the garden.

But online lectures, much like the tutorials, are never the same. There is something magical about a packed-out lecture hall on a Thursday morning. Despite the infectious fatigue and looming essay deadlines, it is always a treat to listen to an expert in their field. Perhaps I miss the relentless pace of the lectures and the deafening background noise of students desperately sifting through the handouts. For the first lecture, I admit, I did. But then, as no doubt many students are finding, the lecture experience becomes a monotony. One that is very similar to the Groundhog of long working hours within the same four walls. 

Virtual socialising, mock-pub crawls, pub quizzes and the like never quite cut the mustard.”

However, as is the norm with Oxford terms, this experience should only be fleeting. Time whizzes by once the essay count reaches halfway. After the dreaded excursion of the fifth week, the last three tend to pick up a pace. Though whether that feeling is the same this term, is open to doubt. Yes, the university has done a commendable job. Not only in providing some kind of learning experience, but also in looking over their students’ wellbeing and welfare.

Still, like the rest of us, I am looking forward to the end of this unreal experience.

Image Credits: MyEyeSees @ CreativeCommons

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