University is where young people transition into adulthood, but the poet and lecturer says the past two years have left many in her creative writing classes in limbo
Before the pandemic hit, I had read that the future of higher education would involve a shift from the university as a physical location of learning to a digital offering that came to you, wherever you were. I remember thinking: well, that will never happen! Even with the popularity of distance learning and digital education platforms to support in-person learning, I couldn’t imagine a world in which the campus didn’t feature as the hub of resources, networking and socialising. Yet that was exactly the world the pandemic brought us.
In September 2020, my colleagues at Brunel University London and I lamented (over a video call) how hard the coming term was going to be, how our students were losing out, how our teaching wouldn’t translate online. The main pedagogy of my subject, creative writing, is the writing workshop, by which students read and offer feedback on each other’s work. For students new to this discipline, being in a room together, engaging in what can be a nerve-racking activity, felt very important. No online version could replace real human connection, surely?
Student attendance improved – in some cases, significantly. With no commute to face, more students logged in to classes – often, I suspect, from bed. Why don’t I know whether or not they were in bed? Because, in the first weeks, many kept their cameras off – until my team decided that talking into an abyss of black screens was awful and introduced a “cameras on” policy.
The chat function in Zoom is an interesting place – students who might be shy to talk in class might not be shy in chat. Sometimes, I struggled to keep up with the speed of their responses.
My day became full of new language: “Let’s Zoom”, “I’ll just screen-share”, “See you on Teams!” On good days, I had 40 students attending fruitful online discussions, giving many responses to my questions and sensitive feedback about each other’s work. But other words and phrases entered my language, too, such as “digital poverty”, which applied to students who didn’t have laptops or an internet connection. One young woman told me that she was sharing her mum’s phone with her three younger siblings, all of them meant to be learning online.
My eyesight got rapidly worse. In December 2020, I appeared on video wearing glasses for the first time.
My colleagues and I curated our video backgrounds to look learned – many sat in front of bookshelves. I seemed always to be moving my washing rack out of sight.
It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. My students seemed to cope with online learning better than my six-year-old son, who languished at home with 155 “outstanding activities” on Seesaw, his primary school’s digital platform. (That is no criticism of primary teachers, who were legendary in their response to delivering online and in-person teaching throughout.)