Can student life survive online?

How will third level students adjust to the new realities of an online life?

Trinity College Dublin during  Freshers Week. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Trinity College Dublin during Freshers Week. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times


Studying and learning is moving online. But third level is about so much more than academia: it’s about getting involved, joining clubs and societies, having new experiences, making new friends and making mistakes. If the Covid-19 crisis continues well into the next academic year, will students - particularly incoming first years - miss out on that formative college experience?

Across colleges and universities, student clubs and societies have been adjusting to an online life.

Cian McGrath, deputy editor of UCC’s University Express, says that being involved in the college paper and societies such as NetSoc were the best part of his college experience. “NetSoc has moved a lot of our meetups online, and a lot of societies and clubs have done the same. Hopefully all colleges will have consideration for how important it is for students to meet up and make friends.”

Paul Davis of Maynooth University’s sports services, says that student sports clubs and the associated professional bodies are working on ways in which sports or training can go ahead with social distancing. “We’ve been doing Zooms calls where students do speed and agility training together. Everyone needs to get out, get some air, exercise and social contact. We will have to do things differently: it will be a challenge and will have to be thought our carefully, but there will be some sort of offering.”

At DCU, Dr Claire Bohan is director of student support and development. “How do we replicate the sense of being a student and the clear divide between school days and college?” she says.

“Incoming first years will already have been through a tough few months. We are workshopping scenarios whereby we will be primarily online but with some on-campus learning. The campus will be open. We will do what we can within social distancing guidelines. Clubs and societies are student-led and they have been adapting fast. The big challenge isn’t continuing a social life for returning students; it’s for creating a college experience for the first years who don’t know what they don’t know, and we will support them.”

How might this lost opportunity impact on student mental health? “We’ve seen students who are struggling with additional stress in both their personal and family lives, while others are reporting significant improvements in their mental health,” says Marianne Dunne, director of students services and mental health at Maynooth University.

“We have been able to adapt our supports such as counselling, health, budgeting and chaplaincy, using phone and video consultations, while also introducing new initiatives such as a virtual cafe, online yoga and meditation and an online book club. Overall, the level of student engagement and participation with our services since March 13th has been really positive.”

Many students will be disappointed that they’re missing out on the full first year experience, but there are ways to engage now. Getting involved in a new club or society can seem daunting but most are very welcoming. All of those committee members or writers for the student paper were first years once, and because most college courses only last four years, clubs and societies are absolutely dependent on new members to keep going and to bring new ideas to life.

It’s also no harm, once students know where they’re going, to look at the clubs and societies that interest them and maybe even to contact them and let them know that, despite whatever social distancing restrictions are in place, they’re keen to get involved.

“We’ll be encouraging online meetups, table quizzes - anything that can get people talking and communicating,” says McGrath. “We know how important it is to welcome new students to college.”