This trimester of teaching has been one of the most challenging that I have yet experienced. From the second week of teaching, most units moved teaching delivery online and our campus students had to scramble to adapt to the changed learning environments whilst they were losing their casual jobs.
Moving into the online learning space at Deakin was fairly smooth for me as most of my practice has been designed to be online first. However the student cohort who had intended to study on campus and those who were already studying online faced several challenges. It was this composition of students, international, domestic and distance learners, that put the unit at the frontline of the COVID-19 crumble.
The student cohort that I commonly work with consists largely of international students who attend their studies on campus. Reflecting current government statistics, these students are mainly from China, India and other SEA countries. Alongside this cohort there are some campus-based domestic students and those returning to study online during the course of their professional lives.
During this period, many international students lost their jobs and had deep concerns about their families back in their home country. Others were put directly into financial precarity. For example, in India banks were shut down for a period and families were not able to send money to keep their children going. Family income in the home country also suffered. After the Australian government told students to “go home”, many of these students were stranded without support and struggled to feed themselves. Let alone focus on their studies.
The contribution these students make to a socio-cultural and economic life in Australia and within the Higher Education sector makes these circumstances that they faced even more shameful. Localised responses were put in place by universities to somewhat address this issue, however this is unlikely to have been enough.
In face of these hardships and also in context to the broader uncertainties and shut down of mobility, many students were in general anxious, bored and stressed during the trimester. This was not offset by peer support, as many of these students did not sufficiently build the peer networks that is normal for on campus students in their first weeks of the trimester. Some students felt isolated while others were not best equipped or enabled to deal with mental and other health issues.
Across the course of this pandemic on-set study period some students struggled to focus on their studies as the world fell down around them and their families went through tragic circumstances. This was particularly intense for international students separated from their families and unable to help as their parents’ businesses collapsed in their home countries.
Some students, like many of us, experienced boredom and some minor inconveniences, not understanding the scale of the tragedy for others. Others were so deep in their own stressors and experience, they were barely able to focus on their studies. For most students, continuing their studies represented a hope for a different future and kept them going during difficult circumstances as something positive to focus on.
Studying from home
In the context of COVID-19 pandemic, homespace stability, being able to work from home, and having a decent internet connection was crucial. However, many campus students were scrambling to set up a place to study from in their home.
Adding to this turbulence, students also had to move homes, with landlords asking them to leave due to financial reasons or fears that the student would bring COVID-19 into the household. This was a wider issue for the international student population, with many losing their casual jobs, not being able to pay their rent and as private renters, not being clear of their rights in these circumstances.
Students who were expecting to study on campus did not always have a sufficient home office set up or quiet environment that they could work at home from. They did not always have reliable internet access from home either.
The students who did attend the seminars joined me in the online classroom (usually around 8-10). No students had their video connected, with only some students doing this occasionally. Some students were only able to attend by text due to internet bandwidth issues and at least one or two students dropped in an out of the seminar space due to poor internet connectivity every class.
Specific impacts for online learners
Students who chose to study online are generally more mature, returning to study, have workplace experience and are set up for home study. This is a smaller domestic cohort than the international student cohort in the units I teach into currently. Domestic students also experienced upheaval in terms of job loss, changing family circumstances and intermittent wifi. The anticipated work-study balance, with life not getting a look in, that they had planned for went entirely out of the window.
Mature-aged students’ concerns and stressors tend to be more complex than those faced by most campus students, who are on the whole younger. Reflecting society at large, students who elected to study online also include those who are single parenting, working and dealing with sick children, struggling with custody issues and home teaching during this period when their children were not able to go to school. Operating within this personal context tended to result in observable fatigue, challenges in balancing priorities and difficulty setting aside uninterrupted time to do their study.
Students who were affected by the Travel ban, and conducting their study from their home country, experienced further challenges. Internet access to resources was a particular issue experienced by Chinese students studying from China due to the internet firewall. Whilst there were significant efforts to assist us in making sure content was accessible from China, there remained issues. While the content was theoretically able to be accessed from China, in reality, a student needed to establish a viable VPN connection that was stable and high speed to effectively engage with the content. This appeared to be challenging and is likely affected by the government regulations and approach to VPN access.
Other students who took the message from our “leaders” and fled the country back to their home country left their belongings, including essential study items such as laptops, in Melbourne. Students who returned to India had to deal with variable internet access. For these students, dealing with financial issues such as paying high rents and doing their studies online with a lack of technological inputs became very challenging.
Who is affected?
Within my direct experience, no student was untouched by these circumstances. In discussion with faculty and peers at other universities, these stories and experiences are illustrative and resonant with their own practice. In discussion with colleagues in other sectors, such as rental advocates, services are experiencing a surge in supporting international students, for example in dealing with tenancy issues.
Whilst universities are putting in place a strategy for dealing with the higher than anticipated number of fail grades for this trimester, I am concerned about how I am going to address these ongoing issues raised in my classroom as we prepare for the next trimester.
You can watch this space as I work through the possibilities of compiling and developing more support and guidance for online study practices during these difficult times. Excitingly, these insights will evolve through my work in developing interactive modules for a classic academic skills book, Making the Grade (which I highly recommend).
Within Deakin the three trimester system grinds on and we have only a few weeks to go before we re-enter the classroom. I have been teaching for three trimesters a year, for four years and this has been too much. However my contractual conditions under a fixed-term contract have been underwhelming and it has taken substantial negotiations to even get some breathing room. These small wins are with limited protection as the sector closes down on casual staff, rescinds contracts and shifts the teaching burden on to continuing staff, often through the reduction of their research allocations.
While I am gasping for air and peddling forward under a heavy blanket of marking, the sector continues to undergo seismic shocks. At Deakin, we are currently facing 400 redundancies, and the government is now announcing a price-point oriented strategy for getting new students to enrol in courses they think will produce graduates where there are jobs. This strategy sees the fees for arts, humanities and social sciences degrees to go up more than 100% and funding to be generally reduced across the board and in the targeted areas identified as priorities for the future workforce by the government. It also puts into question what the purpose of a university education is and how they fund and prioritise research.
Will there even be a classroom and students for me to be concerned about next year? Who knows. But my fixed-term contract will finish and the job market in higher ed will be in deep freeze when I am spat out the other side. As much as I am concerned for my current and future students, I don’t see clear opportunities for me and my expertise in the higher ed sector. In light of this, my approach is to focus on creative, responsive and agile strategies and plan to turn my talents towards growth sectors that will inevitably emerge.
NB: This blog has been edited to ensure student anonymity.