“Vague and Confusing” : Students Challenged by Online Delivery of Stem Subjects

31 August 2020

As the University of Melbourne continues to remain online for semester two, STEM students worry that their studies are at a disadvantage after their experience in online labs and practicals during semester one.

While specific arrangements for practical classes vary across subjects and faculties, many units within the Faculty of Science have transitioned their in-person practical classes to video modules.

First year science student Claire Bello told Farrago, “For my labs, an overview would be given of what the lab was going to be about. This was usually accompanied by a video of the experiment being conducted by a demonstrator and then students would have to answer questions.”

Other students, including Ciara Lumsden, note that these videos were often “vague and confusing”.

Furthermore, student Liam Morey says that the quality of these videos does not meet the standards of in-person classes.

Morey notes that videos have “low resolution and no ability to see fine details from the practicals”.

Time spent is also an issue, with Morey commenting, “Having a worksheet with a video that’s literally two per cent of the time normally allocated for a practical is nowhere near the standard of a physical lab.”

This reflects a general attitude amongst students that the shift towards online learning is causing significant harm to the value of their STEM degree.

Simon Tudehope, who undertook Laboratory and Computational Physics last semester, said his expectations of the subject greatly differed from what was taught.

“Initially, enrolling in the subject one would think the emphasis was being placed on lab skills in a physical setting. However … the course evolved into that of a computer science based subject,” he said.

Tudehope also reflected that this new programming centric approach had been a steep learning curve for those who did not have a coding background.

Stresses have also been felt when it comes to uncertainty about exam conduct, and worry about how this will be improved in the lead up to semester two exams.

Ben Fok stated that in semester one, the information provided to students about how the exam would be invigilated did not prevent the inconsistencies that arose on the day.

“My Zoom meeting was meant to open at least fifteen minutes before the start time but only opened about two or three minutes before”, said Fok.

Though the University has an option to apply to re-sit an exam or assessment under technical consideration, technical issues are not grounds for special consideration regardless of the setbacks STEM students have faced when accessing practical and laboratory work.

Claire Bello has also raised concerns about what her experience with online practicals may mean for the remainder of her course, and how it will affect its future value.

“There is only so much that online learning in terms of practicals can do … As a first year student, it would highly impact how I approach labs in the future,” she said.

“Without the experience of personally doing the practical itself, it sort of defeats the purpose of applying what you learnt in lectures.”

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