Covid-19 student days: Empty lecture theatres, online learning and micro-communities

Universities are working to ensure college life is rich and not just screen-mediated

A few weeks ago. Dublin City University president Prof Brian MacCraith requested experts to advise on how the capacity of its largest lecture theatre would be affected by social-distancing rules.

“We have a 500-seat, tiered lecture theatre here,” says MacCraith.”When we measured it, we realised it would only accommodate about 50 people.”

Similar restrictions apply to smaller lecture theatres and classrooms right across the campus. It has left college management with a major dilemma: how to accommodate the university’s 16,000 students come September.

DCU has decided that most lectures will be replaced with online tuition. Students will most likely have limited access to the campus for a maximum of two days a week for smaller face-to-face tutorials, laboratory work and other small group activity.

Many other universities across the State are planning similar measures in the new academic year with an emphasis on “blended learning”, combining online tuition with smaller group work on campus.

UCD, for example, is proposing to live-stream lectures, with a reduced number of students physically present, and to organise “flipped classes” where students watch pre-recorded lectures followed by online or small group discussions.

It says campus activities will be limited to no more than 50 people in a room until public health guidelines stipulate these are permissible.

Trinity College Dublin says it is taking its lead from universities elsewhere in Europe by delivering larger lectures to groups online, with smaller lectures, seminars and tutorials taking place on campus.

All are keen to emphasise that they are not going down the route of the University of Cambridge, which made headlines last week when it announced it is moving all its lectures and learning activity online.

Clubs and societies

But if most lectures end up behind a screen, and campus social life is dramatically curtailed, how much attraction will the idea of college really hold in the new academic year?

Clubs and societies and social events have always been an essential part of the university experience.

It’s where students form lifelong friendships, discover themselves and find out what they’re really capable of.

How, for example, would the storyline of Normal People hold up in an era of social distancing and “physical mixing” limits on campus?

And then there’s the dilemma facing students of whether it’s worth their while spending thousands of euro on student accommodation if they end up doing most of their work remotely.

UCD president Prof Andrew Deeks says teaching will commence on September 21st and that face-to-face interaction will continue to be a "vital ingredient" in students' learning journeys.

“While the national response to Covid-19 continues to pose significant challenges in maintaining this experience, we will seek to ensure our students commence and continue their education in UCD accessing and using our campuses to the greatest extent possible,” he says.

While physical mixing between students from different cohorts will be minimised, he says students will work in “stable groups or pods” when on campus to facilitate contact tracing, if required.

The university is also planning to reopen – to the “greatest extent possible” – facilities such as the student centre, sports centre, restaurants, shops and other indoor amenity and study spaces, as well as on-campus student residences and other activities.

Social life

At DCU, MacCraith says he is acutely aware of the need to ensure college isn’t “experienced behind a screen” and work is under way in scoping how the university’s 140 clubs and societies can continue to function.

“I think it will be about creating micro-communities, organising workshops for students . . . if there’s a gig in the Helix, we’re looking at how to stream it elsewhere in the campus. It’s all about being creative and innovative.”

He is particularly keen to ensure first-year students get an authentic taste of college life, which is why it has decided they will begin on September 21st – two weeks ahead of other students.

Given that students will be on campus for no more than a few days a week, the  university is to offer students “highly flexible” on-campus accommodation for the coming academic year.

These students will be able to state if they need accommodation for specific days, weeks or months rather than block-booking for the academic year.

MacCraith said: “This is a radically different model for on-campus university accommodation. But it reflects the new circumstances for students and, from our discussions with them, we are confident that it addresses their needs in an adaptable fashion.”

University of Limerick has also signalled it will be as "accommodating as possible" for new students, while UCC says the new academic year will begin on September 28th following a "phased and gradual return to work in a safe and controlled environment".

Trinity, which is likely to reopen for undergraduate students on September 28th, has had to cancel on-campus events, but is exploring ways of allowing freshers’ week, along with clubs and societies, to function in line with social distancing requirements.

The university's provost, Prof Patrick Prendergast, said in a recent online video that he is looking forward to walking "through our resurgent campus in the autumn, pulsating again with people and ideas".

Unlike most other colleges, TCD is advising students that they are welcome to take part in Erasmus programmes, though it will no longer form a compulsory part of any course. In-bound Erasmuc prgrammes will also continue.

Fund shortfall

If colleges are facing challenges dealing with social distancing requirements, it is nothing compared to the financial black hole facing the sector.

Latest estimates by the Higher Education Authority are that colleges will have a €500 million shortfall due to a drop in international students and other sources of income.

Colleges have also been told there is no additional funding available, at present, for the cost of implementing social distancing or boosting online teaching and learning supports.

The same report also warns there is a likelihood the number of college deferrals will rise this year, due to the Covid-19 fallout.

While the challenges are daunting, MacCraith says he is hopeful students will still find college to be a stimulating and exciting experience.

“What students mainly want is a connection; they want to be in a space where they feel they can make friends, feel connected. No student wants their college experience to be through a screen or laptop.

“We’re hearing from principals and students themselves that they’re dying to get into university; we’re not hearing about deferrals.

“That’s why we’re bringing first years back two weeks in advance, so they can learn how to learn online, create connections with staff and tutors and form these micro-communities.”

‘It sounds bleak’: Students on returning to socially distanced university

The prospect of returning to college normally makes Trinity student Luke Fehily feel a tingle of anticipation.

“I’ve always been enthused about seeing friends, lecturers and professors . . . but when you strip everything away, I worry that it will be almost like watching a Youtube video,” says Fehily, a final-year nanoscience student. “It all sounds a bit bleak.”

The Normal People TV series, he says, now feels like a “time-capsule from another age” of what college used to be like.

“It will be held up, rightly or wrongly, as the quintessential Trinity experience, just at a time when we won’t be able to able to experience it . . . It’s a time of personal growth. Lots of people say they grow most in their first few years in university – and it’s not because they’re encountering new material in class.”

Christine Ní Mhathúna, who is hoping to begin a masters in human rights law in UCD in September, is concerned about having limited access to the campus.

“The thing with online lectures is that you sometimes lose motivation as you don’t have a schedule and can listen to it at any time,” she says.

“As I didn’t do my undergraduate in UCD, I hope the situation allows us to start back on campus in September as I want to see my new classmates, the college itself, have access to the library and be able to join societies and clubs.”

Ciarán Freeman is a general nursing student in NUI Galway who says he is apprehensive about online learning.

“Due to healthcare disciplines requiring instruction in many clinical skills, we will have to physically attend college for skill sessions,” he says.

“Accommodation is also going to be exceptionally difficult for students, especially those in nursing and midwifery. Many rely on digs, but some families may be unwilling to house another person now, especially a student who has the risk of contracting Covid-19.”

Latest Stories