For Christian Jones, who has just finished a master’s in broadcast journalism at City University of London, the rapid shift to online learning due to Covid-19 came as a bit of a shock. “I spent the first week not setting alarms,” he says. “It’s easy to end up going to bed late and waking up really late. Then you don’t get anything done.”
Students in the UK have been prevented from entering lecture theatres since late March, and so have had to quickly adjust to studying online. According to the latest government guidance, students in England could be confined to their halls of residence in the new term, so it’s expected that blended learning – a mix of online and face-to-face teaching – will continue.
“Universities will do as much as possible on campus, however the reality is that most large-scale group teaching and learning activities are going to happen online,” Neil Morris, dean of digital education at the University of Leeds, says. “Students need to be prepared for that.”
But there’s no need to panic, according to Dr Damon Miller from the Open University. “Generally people are nervous at the beginning, but don’t worry – you won’t be left to it on your own.”
Before you get going, you’ll want to consider the equipment you’ll need. It’ll help to have a laptop with a decent screen or stand. Check whether you can get a student discount, and whether your university offers a laptop loan service.
Next, set out a study space so you can work without distractions. “Make sure your work area is not your recreation area,” says Matt Huxley, a lecturer at Staffordshire University London. “It might just be going to sit in the kitchen or on the sofa, but it’s about the psychological impact [of having a separate space].” This also helps limit distractions “so you’re not watching TV as well as studying”, adds Huxley.
If your university puts on digital skills workshops, Morris recommends that you attend them. “I would strongly advise students to engage really thoughtfully with the IT induction that’s being offered and with the digital skills training,” he says.
Once you’ve got the basics down, ensure you have the right online etiquette. “That’s being aware of your surroundings and how you present yourself virtually,” Huxley explains. Make sure your microphone is muted and that you’re not sitting with the window behind you so other people can’t see you. “You should also wear clothes,” Huxley says. “You’d be surprised, I’ve seen people in bed without their T-shirts on before.”
The usual study techniques still apply. It’s good to consider what type of learner you are – perhaps you’re a visual learner and should make use of any extra reading materials given out. Or maybe you’re an inquisitive learner and like to ask questions, in which case you can use tutorial time for further discussion. It’s also good to keep a pen and paper with you and note down any questions that come up, Huxley says.
Students like Jones say one of the main things they’ve learned is the importance of keeping to a structure. “If you have a scheduled lecture on Zoom, it’s good to do it in that slot,” says Maisie Marston, who has just graduated from a politics degree at Cardiff University. “Then you keep to a structure and can ask questions, which makes it feel more like you’re at uni.”
Studying can be tiring, whether it’s online or in person, so don’t try and fit too much in. “The main thing is to plan your time and take breaks,” Miller says. Marston agrees. “It’s worthwhile to grab a coffee or sit outside, to have a change of scenery,” she says.
Online learning doesn’t have to be anti-social. For example, you could study alongside people you live with. Marston says studying with her girlfriend helped to keep her motivated. “It’s nice to study with someone else, so you can stay focused and make lots of tea for each other,” she says.
You can also meet new people and connect online, Miller says. “Social media is a good way of keeping in touch. Even if you’re sitting alone on your laptop, you are not alone, there’s a massive support network there,” he says.
If you’re struggling, ask for help and your university should support you. “Things go wrong, computers crash, people get ill. What [students] shouldn’t do is shy away and hide and not contact the university. That’s the worst thing they can do,” says Miller. “We’ve got a dedicated student support team, so ask for help.”