'I’m finding it very difficult to concentrate'

Students report mixed experience with online learning. Problems include lagging Wifi, fighting distractions, separation between academic and home life.

A pedestrian walks through an otherwise deserted College Green in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

A pedestrian walks through an otherwise deserted College Green in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

 

Just over a month ago, I was still in work talking to my co-workers about how we hoped colleges wouldn’t have to be closed because of the virus. At that time, our only concept of Covid-19 was what we’d read online as it tore through faraway places and delayed its Irish introduction. Now, weeks later, the world seems to have turned on its head.

Up until two weeks ago, I had never even heard of Zoom. What had previously been employed by companies for video conferencing is now being utilised by universities all over the world for remote learning. For many of us, this means an awkward adjustment period as we settle into online lectures and seminars via various services - in my case, Zoom.

In my experience so far, Zoom has been a relatively practical substitute for brick and mortar style classes. The Zoom display depicts individual tiles for each participant in a meeting. Those tiles can either fan across the top or the side of the screen. Students can tailor the display depending on their preferences; for example, if a student does not want to see their classmates while the lecturer is talking, they can mute the other tiles. There is also a chat feature, which can be viewed simultaneously while viewing a lecture. To attend a Zoom class, students are emailed a link that they must open prior to the start time.

So far my lectures have been fantastic - the main difference simply being that the class is taught at two separate times to accommodate the students who have gone home and are in different time zones. I have found Zoom easy to navigate, and do not feel that the quality of my lectures has suffered at all. And even though a virtual classroom may not be the same as a brick and mortar classroom, it is really nice to be able to see my classmates and professors again, and maintain a sense of community as well as routine during this crisis.

HSE staff and volunteers from NUI Galway College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Galway Airport Community Testing Centre simulating COVID-19 testing on staff members, before the centre opened for testing on Wednesday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
HSE staff and volunteers from NUI Galway College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Galway Airport Community Testing Centre simulating COVID-19 testing on staff members, before the centre opened for testing on Wednesday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Complications
But the potential complications that lie with virtual classes are unfortunately, largely out of the control of universities. These classes are entirely dependent on a strong internet connection, which varies depending on an individual’s broadband package and proximity to a router, as well as how many people are online at one time (both within the app, as well as across the internet).

Internet providers all over the world are struggling right now to accommodate this sudden surge online as we all switch to working and learning remotely, not to mention the increased usage of streaming services like Netflix.

I find it helps my Zoom connection when I disconnect my phone and other devices from the WiFi network - but this does not always solve the problem of network latency. On the other end of the spectrum entirely, some students may lack adequate internet access altogether, or even a home computer. In these scenarios, maintaining any semblance of a learning environment would be nearly impossible.

Another issue at hand is that of self-discipline and a suitable work space. Online lectures require a great deal of restraint, as it is much easier to get distracted while surrounded by personal items and family members/roommates. Many students likely do not have access to a private, quiet space for studying.

I myself view these lectures from my laptop on my kitchen table, which doubles as a desk in my small Dublin apartment. The table is wedged between a bookshelf and the TV, in the same room as the couch. Not ideal.

One thing I can say, however, is how accommodating and empathetic my professors at Trinity have been. This shift to online classes has been difficult for all of us - and our professors are not excluded.

And while many would agree that online learning is not an ideal platform, I can sincerely say that my lecturers, course director, and executive officer are doing everything in their power to help my class finish the semester with the support we need.

Stuck in limbo
I am, however, aware that there are students out there who are not feeling supported during this time, and who may be stuck in limbo as their programmes figure out how to translate course material into an online curriculum. The effectiveness and practicality of an online platform varies depending on the subject matter.

While online workshops and lectures might suit a creative writing student, or a business student, they might not be as functional for students in say - the visual arts. Below are testimonials from students across various disciplines and universities. While most students I interviewed are using Zoom for online classes, one will be starting virtual classes via the Bongo web conferencing tool, and another is using Google Hangout.

Caileigh Ryan
Creative Writing M.Phil student at TCD

“Online classes aren’t a great substitute for in-person seminars. Lagging WiFi means missing out on chunks of conversation when the internet freezes, and the atmosphere and learning environment is not the same as sitting in a classroom with lecturers and classmates.”

Niamh Elliott-Sheridan
Gender and Women’s Studies M.Phil student at TCD

“I’m finding it very difficult to concentrate in them [online lectures]. Being in a non-designated space like a classroom means I get easily distracted, go on my phone more, might open new tabs in the computer. They’re a good effort and I’ll take it, it’s the best that we can do, but there is definitely a different energy.”

Brian Mac Court
Economics, Politics and Law student at DCU

“I’m actually finding the online classes really helpful. I like that they come with the added ability of being able to look over the slides multiple times. I think the college and the lecturers have been exceptional at providing the best possible education that they can in these circumstances, so I think they deserve credit for that. The interactivity varies by class, as some are not live streaming and instead uploaded with voice overs for slides, so that is a small issue.

I think that while this is sufficient for now and necessary, college is an interactive and social experience. People’s home life is also not always suitable for productivity or concentration, and while mine is not the worst, houses can be noisy and distracting places. I’m writing my dissertation at the moment, and I really miss the library, getting up and going somewhere quiet, and having a mental and physical separation between academic and home life.”

Anonymous student at NCAD
”I personally haven’t had many classes online but a Zoom meeting is there and available for us to chat to our tutors whenever we need it! Zoom classes are great but not having the workshops and specialised tutors there to help us is tough. Especially in final year, we have our degree show at the end of this college year, and it looks like that won’t be going ahead which is making it hard to have any motivation to work. It’s also so hard as an art student to find the inspiration and motivation and to get our creative juices flowing being stuck in our house all day. I know for me, and most people in my year, we won’t be able to achieve what we wanted to in our final end of year pieces which is devastating for us. After 3-4 years of working towards this, it’s hard to not be able to put our best work forward at the end of it all, because we couldn’t access our studio and workshops.”

Minhwa Shin
Business student at CCT

“I currently live in the suburbs, and commuting by bus in the morning takes me on average about an hour to get to college. Therefore, having online classes at home gives me less stress in the morning and helps me to organise my daily schedule more efficiently. Also, each class is recorded and uploaded to the college site, so I can look up the classes again whenever I need them. However, I find myself getting easily distracted by my surroundings, especially on the laptop. If I am losing interest in the class or if I want to have a look at something else, I can access different tabs while I attend the online classes.”

Ryan Jones
Mechanical engineering student at TUD, Bolton Street

“At the moment, my course hasn’t started any online lectures, although we do have our first one in the morning. We’ve received some emails from some of our lecturers telling us some topics we should revise while the college is closed. We have also received some emails from staff in the college basically telling us that they are working on solutions to finish our learning and exams for this semester. At the moment we have been told that a couple of our summer exams will be held online, but there are still some subjects we are waiting to be updated on. The situation is a little bit stressful, and although there are still some questions unanswered, we have still been kept up to date with the fact that the lecturers are holding daily meetings to come up with solutions that will benefit us.”