Universities around the world shift to virtual learning

by Anne Cornell-Pouret

PARIS (30 May 2020) —As universities across the globe vacated campuses and moved classes online to combat the spread of COVID-19, we reached out to alumni who are pursuing their studies abroad. Some schools were slow to embrace online learning while others made the digital shift at breakneck speed. Lockdown and social distancing rules varied from country to country prompting students to choose between staying abroad or returning to France.

Currently a student at the University of Amsterdam studying Communications Science, Alexandra Gosmand (class of 2017) stated: “The Netherlands did not issue a lockdown order and there are only very vague social distancing rules so I decided it would be safer to return to France.” This sentiment was echoed by Eloise Thevenet (class of 2017) graduating from UCL in the UK this term with a degree in Biochemical Engineering. She explained that the city entered “lockdown mid-March, but I decided to leave early because I felt the UK wasn’t taking enough action.”

Other students decided to stay abroad. Based in the US, Alexandre Mas (class of 2018), a sophomore at Rutgers University in New Jersey studying Economics, “decided not to return to France because staying in the US was the safest option. Going in airports and airplanes with Covid-19 is just not a risk I wanted to take as I’m lucky enough to have other options in the US.” Also located in North America, Olivia Pouret (class of 2018), a Nutritional Sciences student at McGill University in Canada, decided to wait until the semester finished declaring that it would have been “challenging to follow online classes and write exams with the time difference between Paris and Montréal.”

In Singapore, Justine Zhang (class of 2018), a student in the global BBA program at ESSEC Business School, waited until May before returning to France:

The first coronavirus cases in Singapore arrived soon after China’s alarm, in late January. Because of its geographical location and its close economic ties with China, Singapore was the second country in the world with the most cases for a few weeks (around 80 cases in mid-February). Despite the unfamiliar situation, the virus was well controlled by the government and did not spread too much in the community. However, when the virus reached Europe and North America in March, Singaporeans from abroad came back to their country and some of them were infected. This led to a second wave hitting the country ensuing lockdown orders in early April. I stayed in Singapore until May because I still had online classes which were very inconvenient to follow if I had come back to France because of time zones. The other reason was that the sanitary situation was still better in Singapore than in France, making it safer for me to stay. Singapore’s lockdown was also less restraining with no need to fill out declarations to go out.

Universities have kept their doors open virtually by using a wide range of cloud-based video conferencing services and organizing online tutorial sessions. At Rutgers, online classes started after Spring break on March 24th. Alexandre added that “some classes use Zoom or Webex and others use Big Blue Button or Canvas. All exams became open book, but the content also became much harder.” McGill transitioned to Zoom classes at the end of March after closing the school for two weeks to enable teachers and students to prepare for the last few weeks of virtual classes. ESSEC Singapore offered both on campus lectures and online classes at the end of March before going fully online in April.

University students have also had to navigate an uncharted exam season: writing papers, completing assignments, and trying to salvage their semesters — all from isolation. Eloise stated: “Depending on the course, final exams changed into coursework or were cancelled and the whole assessment period was delayed 2 weeks to give us more time to work and ‘recover’ from the stress.” Justine explained that teachers have “tried to adapt their lessons to the situation. Concerning finals, some teachers designed time MCQ quizzes on Moodle. Others created open book exams by giving an essay question.” Many students have a variety of complications that make it tremendously difficult to perform in this context.

Alexandra has noticed that “teachers are being lenient because they know that it’s hard to understand the material through a few Zoom meetings here and there.”

What has been the most challenging aspect of lockdown? According to Edouard Hargrove (class of 2016) who is graduating this term from the University of Exeter in the UK with a BA in International Relations, “Since I am currently finalising my thesis, being unexpectedly restricted to my apartment has made it difficult to access a number of relevant books and sources.” Olivia mentioned that keeping “a consistent routine is hard when you have more distractions than usual and a notion of time that is distorted.” Eloise added that “it is more difficult to get into the work mode since it consists of just taking three steps to go from your bed to your desk.”

From a practical point of view, Alexandre commented that “getting food” has been somewhat complicated. “All online grocery delivery dates have been booked for weeks and stores have placed quotas on the number of people inside. People can easily wait an hour or two just to go in a grocery store.” Living with parents can also be problematic. Eloise mentioned that “you have to go back to your old high school habits which can be frustrating.” Alexandra agreed that “living according to your parents’ schedules” can be challenging at times.

Students graduating this term are facing unique additional challenges, including cancelled graduation ceremonies and worries about future job prospects. Eloise stated, “The graduation ceremony, although scheduled for September, has been cancelled.” UCL will most likely organize an alternative celebration in 2021. The University of Exeter has also cancelled their July ceremony although they have plans in place to graduate students in absentia. Edouard stated that he was “quite uncertain” as to what his “summer plans will be, other than spending this valuable time with loved ones.”

Julie Ryan (class of 2017) has just completed a BA in Economics and International Development at McGill. She explained that “the university has decided to do both a virtual and in-person graduation. The latter is postponed to next year. McGill is celebrating its bicentennial in 2021 so they have decided to jointly celebrate graduates of 2020 and 2021.” Recently hired as a Business Analyst at NG Launchpad, an innovation lab in the digital financial services in London, Julie sees a “silver lining to this crisis.” She was supposed to start her new job “after graduating in June, but the situation has in fact allowed me to start earlier, working remotely.”

Keeping a positive mindset is key when coping with the challenges of an uncertain future. As lockdown rules relax in Europe and North America, our alumni are looking forward to seeing friends, going out to eat, going on cultural outings, spending time outside, playing soccer, and enjoying life once again. Eloise is excited to see friends from high school stating, “It’s one of the first times that everyone is back from the country where they’re studying so hopefully, we can enjoy being together as a group before we each have to go onto our Masters or jobs!” Alexandre is hoping that “we get a somewhat normal summer”. We hope that the “new normal” brings our alumni exciting learning and professional opportunities thanks to the myriad of tools and technology now at their disposal.

Par : Cornell-Pouret le 30/05/2020


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