Transitioning to online classes leaving first-year students with a memorable start to their courses

10 April 2020

Zoom tutorials probably wouldn’t normally make the list of things first-year students are looking forward to the most at university.

I thought it would be hanging out on South Lawn between classes. Really, I thought it would be wearing my best high-waisted jeans across campus in the hopes of receiving a UniMelb Love Letter.

But, starting from March 17, the University of Melbourne began its transition to a “virtual campus” in an effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve. With this shift to online learning, the University also introduced a new way of experiencing the university lifestyle to first-year students such as myself.

Each week brought a revised academic calendar, the tribulations of a silent Zoom tutorial, and a great sense of never knowing what’s next.

Who would’ve guessed an awkward tutorial could be even more painful online? It’s only eased by the comedy of neither you nor your tutor knowing what’s happening. In your first online tutorial, you will ask when the assignment will be due, and so your tutor will say it’s due in Week Four. The joke is that Week Four will be cancelled.

For first-year Music student Jessica Yu, the lack of certainty represents only one of the many issues with online classes.

“I find that online learning is a lot more difficult, especially for my course, where so much is depending on face-to-face contact and group ensembles,” said Yu.

While the Conservatorium of Music has indefinitely cancelled ensemble rehearsals and performances, practicals such as concert classes and group performances continue to be conducted on Zoom.

“We attempted to each individually play around 50 bars of our piece [on Zoom] then give advice, but our audio quality was tragic,” said flautist Wiki Chen.

“So instead of playing group based things, the teacher decided to record stuff and upload it on Dropbox … Sometimes you could upload a pre-recorded version before you start the class.”

Conservatorium Director Richard Kurth has urged students to look at the bright side. In an email sent to students on March 27, Kurth said online classes “will bring out our best qualities: resilience, collaboration, consideration for each other, and creativity”.

However, accessibility issues surrounding online learning are not limited to courses with practical components. Students said socioeconomic factors also play a huge role. 

“Support should be made available for disadvantaged students who don’t have access to the internet, and those who struggle in a home environment,” said first-year Arts student Jordan Bassilious.

“One of the saddest realities of this transition to online classes is that many students will be forced to remain in emotionally or physically abusive households and have no escape from that situation, which is what University offered.”

Liz Thomas is the chief executive of social services organisation Wayss, which offers support and aid to victims of family violence in Melbourne’s South-East. She said police had made 209 requests to her service in the past seven days, up from the weekly average of 120.

It is highly likely that a number of students could be returning to situations of family violence.

“We are putting literally thousands of students in these pressure cooker environments which makes it incredibly difficult to study,” said Bassilious.

“The University should be proactively giving them a way to get the support they need.”

And yes, the University has introduced the COVID-19 Emergency Support Fund to provide support of up to $7,500 to students experiencing difficult financial challenges. But students within situations of domestic abuse may have difficulties accessing the fund as categories are defined by IT upgrade and study support, loss of income, or cancelled overseas study.

What remains at the core of the issues being raised by first-years is not the loss of coffee carts or the South Lawn aesthetic.

It was keeping campus open for four weeks during a health pandemic. It was receiving news of a confirmed COVID-19 case and instead of closing the campus, the University “commenced a deep sanitising clean” – as if it was enough to keep students safe.

“I think the University’s delayed response towards the situation really was a disappointment,” said Yu.

“We had two confirmed cases, yet we were still one of the last universities to shut down.”

Should the University truly wish to keep students at the heart of everything they do, their health and safety should come first.

It may be sad, but the dream of standing in line for a free sausage every Tuesday or dropping our tote bag by “accident” in front of that cute physics major who’s doing this subject as a breadth will have to wait. It’s for the greater good of public health.


The author submitted this article as a news opinion piece to Farrago.

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