A hybrid journey
Our students share their experiences of hybrid learning and teaching during the first weeks of the new academic year.
As September approached many young adults had a difficult decision ahead of them; remain at home and begin their next academic year online, or travel back to University. While many institutions converted their entire offering online, the University of Edinburgh decided to offer a hybrid approach, blending online teaching with face-to-face options to best support our students.
With the new semester imminent, Claudia Elijas Parra, a Geophysics student, boarded a plane from Spain to Edinburgh to complete her third year of study here. Even with the ongoing coronavirus crisis she decided she wanted to return to Scotland: “I knew the start of this semester was going to be somewhat strange, with all our sessions online and depending on everyone’s internet connection.
“It felt great [to be back] in spite of the two weeks of self-isolation I had to go through,” she said.
Despite the uncertainties of the coming months Claudia is one of many students who returned to the capital to experience Edinburgh’s new hybrid offering. Although it seemed like the best option given the current circumstances, some students still had reservations. Jedidia Solomon Jesse, a second year Electronics & Electrical Engineering student, didn’t know what to expect: “I was apprehensive about how my studies and the semester schedule were going to be affected given the situation.”
I was apprehensive about how my studies and the semester schedule were going to be affected given the situation.
So how have our students found the transition?
At the height of the pandemic, not long after the UK-wide lockdown was announced in March, our academic offering was transferred entirely online. Working towards a more hybrid approach over the summer, our Schools and Colleges completely overhauled their programmes and courses. The difference now is obvious.
Jessica O’Loughlin, a second year Biochemistry student, has seen a huge improvement in the new hybrid offering, especially in comparison to the online-only content adopted in the previous semester: “Back in March, the online teaching was mainly focused on using old lecture recordings and some online quizzes.”
Claudia completely agrees: “Looking back to the transition to virtual learning we did in March, I’m much happier with this semester, since all my lectures, tutorials and labs are live rather than pre-recorded. It makes such a difference: the interaction is real, I feel like I can ask anything at any time and the context will be preserved rather than trying to explain what I’m confused about over email.”
Isobel Ely, a third year Geography & Anthropology student, has also warmed to the hybrid approach: “With everybody in the same situation, the focus is very much now on the learning. Lecturers are doing the most in trying to make things more accessible, and with time maybe this will feel like the new normal.”
Mads Aune, a second year Electrical & Mechanical Engineering student, succinctly summarises the benefits he’s found to hybrid learning: “Studying at my own pace, asking questions during seminars and reduced travel time.”
Being able to choose not only when and where, but also your own pace of study, has had a huge positive impact on our students and their studies.
Jessica elaborates: “As the hours of daylight reduce as we come closer to winter, the asynchronous aspect of teaching – which is how the majority of my teaching materials are delivered – allows me to do outdoor activities when it is light outside. As the evening draws in and it gets darker and colder, I am then able to stay inside and do my coursework.”
Mads is also enjoying this new flexibility: “Having short video lectures online, supplemented with lecture notes, has made it possible for me to learn new content quicker. With video lectures, I can fast forward or skip familiar concepts, and I have been able to rewind and pause when going through unfamiliar content. This means that I can spend less time on what I already know whilst spending more time on learning and understanding what I yet don’t know.”
Jesse, however, is unsure: “I think it presents a unique set of both challenges and advantages. Personally, I think the challenge is the prerogative set upon the students to determine the pace at which they want to interact with the academic content. This is unlike previously when I would step into a lecture, and the lecturer – alongside the tutorial questions – would determine what content is to be covered within a given time.”
Ultimately though, Jesse is positive about the year ahead: “The self-paced learning, even though a challenge in itself, has made me feel that I have taken ownership of my learning. That I dictate my learning speed and times has made me feel closer to my degree as a personal goal.”
Being able to interact with staff without interrupting them, and being able to talk to fellow students during teaching has really helped students to better understand the teaching material. Claudia has found her online classes more interactive: “All the professors are very understanding, and I am pleasantly surprised to see that some of our online lectures and tutorials are livelier than in-person; a strange online learning phenomenon, I suppose!”
Mads explains the specifics: “With traditional teaching, one can ask questions during or after lectures but every question asked is an interruption to the presentation of new topics. During a hybrid seminar however, one can ask clarifying questions in the chat without interrupting the lecture. For example, if we’re analysing an electrical circuit, one can ask ‘why did she write - and not +?’ and receive an instant reply from a fellow student: ‘because the battery is upside down’.”
Without needing to travel to and from classes, most students have found they have a lot more time for studying and socialising (in a socially-distanced manner).
Jesse has enjoyed having more time to engage with his studies: “The time that I would spend moving from one class to the next has been significantly reduced given that I have only one day a week with actual classes. Of course, this has stifled the social aspect of the learning experience but that extra time that has been created, I have found useful to dedicate towards understanding better the core concepts present in my lectures.”
Isobel agrees, but also feels it has served to highlight how much she used to enjoy exploring the city on foot: “Rolling out of bed to my desk to study and drink my coffee (in the warmth of my flat) is the ideal situation.
“I’m realising from this experience of online learning what I do miss about the old university life. Walking to and from uni was a form of mindfulness for me and, so to not miss out on this, I aim to go for a walk every day. It may not be the same stressed saunter to reach my lectures on time, but it means I am actively trying to get out and about in Scotland more.”
Mads sees both the pros and cons of this extra time: “Of course everything here is a trade-off. You get less travel time but that is because you cannot go to the lab. You can study at your own pace but you do not get to see your friends as much. You can choose your own timetable but you are not forced to get up for the 9am lecture.”
Looking out for each other
With everyone, both staff and students, adapting to this new routine, there’s a real sense of community permeating University life. Claudia explains: “Now more than ever, the students in my classes are communicating with each other – through group chats of course! – to make sure no one is left behind or feels lost, as this is confusing for all of us. This helped with the first obstacle, which was figuring out our timetable – we were clueless – but by the end of week one, that was pretty much sorted.
“Additionally, I get to watch lectures with my flatmates since they are in the same course as me, which I’m grateful for since it makes online learning closer to a classroom environment. However, I do miss being in a lecture theatre full of people and the comfort of human interactions of an ordinary day at uni.”
Isobel has also found that despite the restrictions, students are still finding ways to stay in touch and make the most of their university experience: “Getting involved seems difficult given the nature of the situation, yet what I have found is societies are going above and beyond to try and put out things to do for us students. This just shows to me that whilst uni life may not be as it has been before, there are still ways in which we can make the most of our spare time.”
Beginning the journey
We’re still only at the beginning of the hybrid teaching journey, and these past weeks have shown that there’s still plenty of work to be done. Our staff and students are still adapting to this different way of learning and teaching. “As far as I can tell, there are two things that are crucial for hybrid teaching to work well: self-discipline and structure. It has been difficult and time consuming to navigate through a jungle of Learn pages and a hundred emails to find all links to seminars and surgery hours in addition to deadlines,” says Mads.
Others are also keen to make the most of the current situation. “I am, still, adjusting to this new system of learning – trying to make the best of its advantages and at the same time, minimize the stressful factors that come with it. My hope is that at the end of the semester, when I look back to these three and a half months, I will be proud of the academic distance that I will have covered despite the regrettable disruptions brought about by the pandemic,” says Jesse.