A Student’s Advice to Undergraduate Online Learning Amid COVID-19

My workspace at home

While most educational institutions began online teaching in March or April due to worsened COVID19 situation, my university started earlier. After fulfilling the 3rd semester of my degree in January, I flew home to Bangka Belitung for a month-long holiday. The airlines were still on business at that time and I had not even heard of the outbreak. A month later, however, I found myself unable to return to my campus in Haining, China.

My institute is run jointly by Zhejiang University and the University of Edinburgh, thus staff from both universities partner to deliver my program in biomedical informatics. COVID-19 rushed us to bring education to home and concurrently considered factors such as time gap and access to technology. Although my online learning experience was not always smooth sailing — for example, my internet speed was insufficient to support lag-free video conferencing and I occasionally experienced power cuts — I enjoyed the virtual semester.

Of course, I would prefer attending classes in person, but considering the ambiguity and uncertainty during the pandemic, being able to continue education from home was definitely a bonus, way better than none! Here is some advice on undergraduate online learning based on my experience.

Stick to Schedules and Monitor Attendance

The students in my institute are normally taught through a combination of lectures, tutorials, and practical classes. We maintained all these three teaching methods during the online learning process. We must also adhere to time schedules and enter video conferencing classrooms on time. For example, a 9 AM (Beijing Time) class required me to join by 8 AM (Western Indonesian Time). An administrator would monitor attendance and contact any students who went absent and disappeared in the middle of lectures.

Pre-Record Lectures

To bridge the time and technology gap, every lecture was pre-recorded and uploaded to our institute’s learning management system (e.g. Blackboard Learn). Students who encountered technical issues while watching streamed pre-recorded lectures in the virtual classrooms could download and rewatch the videos in the system.

Conduct Tutorials via Video Conferencing or Discussion Forum

As tutorials aim to promote interactions between students and their tutors to critically explore course contents, students are usually divided into small groups of less than 10 individuals both in in-person and online tutorials. A few days prior to tutorials, the tutors would publish guidelines containing questions relating to suggested papers or lecture contents that we had to think about and try to answer in advance. Some tutorials were conducted live on a video-conferencing tool, but still recorded and made available online. One interesting challenge that we often faced during live tutorials was awkward silence — who should unmute the microphone and speak first? To encourage participation from every student in a tutorial group, a tutor sometimes randomly picked a student to propose a solution to a problem or ask a follow-up question. Some tutors, however, preferred to conduct tutorials on the learning management system’s discussion forum, with each thread corresponded to one question. Students were free to comment on each other’s answers and most of the time, tutors would respond immediately, except for those located in Edinburgh due to time difference. However, when they finally replied on the same day, we would expect a detailed and thorough explanation in each thread.

Cloud Computing Provides On-Demand Access to Technology Outside of Computer Lab

For computer-based practical classes, we mainly followed step-by-step guide ourselves and our tutors that monitored the discussion board during the practical hours would help us with any problems we encountered. As biomedical informatics students, we like dealing with biological data analysis which often requires high-performance computers. Considering students’ varying computer specifications at home, our tutors provided us cloud computing service. Cloud computing helped us close the gap in computing resources, enabling every student to run the analysis seamlessly.

A junior undergraduate student studying Biomedical Informatics at Zhejiang University — University of Edinburgh Institute in Haining, China.