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This is not the new normal: Studying during a pandemic


Authors: Ana-Catalina Sabie, Katharina Brunnmayr, Kristina Weinberger, Renée Sophie Singer, Rafael Vrecar, Katta Spiel
Posted: Wed, May 13, 2020 - 1:31:59

Illustration of an overwhelmed student sitting in front of laptop, her face in her hands. A broken piggy bank, a large stack of papers and a long TODO-list are scattered around the laptop on the desk. In the background above the student, semi-abstract icons symbolize data influx related to COVID-19, financial problems, loss of casual interaction, cancellation of lectures, connectivity problems, loss of productivity, and subsequent demands through emails.
Illustration by Renée Sophie Singer.

Austria began its lockdown on March 10, 2020. Just three days later, the government issued stay-at-home orders, quarantined entire villages, decreed non-emergency medical procedures to be moved to a later date, and closed all but essential shops, as well as hospitals, retirement homes, schools, and day care facilities. As university classes started the week before, lecturers and students had one session before everyone’s life was turned upside down. I teach Critical Theory of Media and Informatics and noticed that the students were struggling. Well-meaning advice for considering their situation was available online, but I had seen very few accounts from students themselves. So I asked.

Even though in the middle of April there were two weeks planned without lectures, the students asked to meet at our regular time. Not all of them came, but those who did appreciated just sitting together, if apart, and discussing whatever was on their mind. I suggested they might want to write down their experiences and share them to create community with other students and allow lecturers to better understand students’ perspectives. In the following paragraphs is an account of their experiences. They want you to know that as Austrian master’s students, they are aware of the many privileges they have: healthcare is generally available to most, if not all; Austria—despite being the source of several Covid-19 clusters in Europe—is itself not very affected; and study costs are generally low, though about 60 percent of students work alongside their studies [1]. Additionally, their perspective is limited to a computer science curriculum, including some design and humanities-related courses. Hence, they cannot report on issues like lab availability or the lack of technical aptitude that some students might experience. Nonetheless, they are finding this time difficult to navigate. Given their accounts, we invite readers to consider and potentially extrapolate how their own students might feel. Because the students are not alright… and we should not expect them to be. 

— Katta Spiel

Material constraints 

We are five students in a master’s degree program in media and human-centered computing at TU Wien in Austria. As students of computer science, many of us came to remote learning from a very privileged position. All of the authors are used to working on their laptops, and students as well as lecturers have above average technology skills and could be expected to move their courses online in a timely manner. Despite this advantageous starting position, we still encounter infrastructure-related problems regularly. 

Student housing often cannot offer a stable Internet connection or a quiet and undisturbed working space to all occupants. Previously, this issue was mitigated due to the availability of learning spaces and Internet access at currently inaccessible university buildings. In addition to this lack of space, transferring all courses from attended lectures to remote teaching has not always been a smooth process. Lesson plans dependent on personal interaction or hardware availability had to be changed, scheduling restrictions regarding collisions were thrown to the wind, and everyone had to work with a fundamental lack of information. With the abrupt shutdown of universities, there was a lot of confusion around which courses would take place at all, and how as well as where students could get the necessary information. Our university was not prepared to shift to remote learning on a large scale, so while the necessary infrastructure to stream lectures was technically available, other courses had to individually identify ways of meeting up online.

One of the main effects of this lack of preparation is that students have to navigate a litany of different services across our courses. In Table 1, we list 16 different tools that we need to use for communication or collaboration in our learning, including at least one VoIP (voice over IP) service per course. All of these come with their own account requirements and notification ecology, as well as a frequent need for updates, little to no opportunity for personalization, and vastly different workflows. Next to the lack of choice or consent our educators gave us in the matter, privacy and data protection are questionable in some of these tools. 

As an example: Critical Theory of Informatics decided to use Mumble, which is an open source tool hosted on external servers that requires the creation of an account. However, other lectures use the university-wide Zoom installation, leaving students with the choice of either installing and using the tool (accepting potential breaches of privacy) or dropping the lecture. In some cases, lecturers are free to look for alternatives together to find a tool that is suitable for everyone in the course. Finding a solution that fits all requirements is virtually impossible due to limited material and cognitive resources. 

Platform/Technology Modality Availability Hosting
Slack Text, Audio chat* Limited free plan, closed source External
Email Text   Internal
Zoom Audio/Video chat* Limited free plan, closed source External
GoToMeeting Audio/Video chat* Limited free plan, closed source External
Jitsi Audio/Video chat* Open source External^
Mumble Audio chat Open source External^
Skype Audio/Video chat* Limited free plan, closed source External
Etherpad§ Text Open source External
YouTube Video and Stream Advertising, closed source External
LectureTube Video and Stream In-house development Internal
Moodle Learning Platform Open source Internal
SAP Text B2B, closed source Internal
Xodo PDF Annotation Free for teaching, closed source External
GoogleDocs Text Editing Closed source External
GitHub Programming Open source External^
GitLab Programming Open source Internal
Table 1 (* participant or time limit in free plan, ^ could be self-hosted but is not, § two different services).

In addition to setting up a variety of different tools, we also need to keep up with information provided on various university websites, via third-party services, over email, or on the lecturers’ personal homepages. Of the courses that have sent out any updates, some have been canceled altogether while others have adapted their mode to provide as good a learning environment as possible; still others switched to purely independent study courses after providing all the necessary reading materials. However, most continued in some way, though often lacking any specific support for coping with the situation.

We have found that listening to a lecture or participating in discussion via video chat is entirely doable, despite the seemingly unavoidable technical problems. However, we have found that remote discussions require considerably more energy (due to the monomodality and issues like noise or lag) than their in-person equivalent, while leading to more shallow and unsatisfying conversations. 

Mourning casual sociality

One of the biggest impacts on our learning has been the loss of personal contact with lecturers and peers. Conference calls and lecture streams can be a substitute for the lectures and in-class discussion, but fail to support informal social interaction that is not only part of each course but also fundamental to peer-driven learning. We miss the casual discussions through which we can clarify questions we might have had and exchange our thoughts on a given topic. It becomes additionally more difficult to identify and coordinate suitable groups for assignments, which then leads to difficulties in submitting on time.

This lack of casual interaction removes a layer of support between students and lecturers. Making new contacts and talking to other students provides reassurance, additional explanations, new ideas, and valuable future connections. While it is technically possible to do this in video calls, current technology comes with severe limitations for casual group conversations, as subtle social cues and body movements have to be largely inferred and there is no spatial separation between private spaces and learning spaces. Additionally, most of us are already fatigued from having several multi-hour calls to attend each week. 

Too much to do 

As mentioned in the introduction, most students finance their studies by working at least part time. Some of us are in essential jobs and have to cover more shifts to protect our more vulnerable coworkers, while others have lost their jobs, leading to financial distress. In addition, while by and large we are not in a risk group ourselves, many of those close to us are. In this situation, lecturers replacing their lectures with reading assignments poses an additional problem. As computer science students, we do not have the experience and skill to effectively work through papers on our own with little to no guidance. Instead of attending a 90-minute lecture, we have to spend hours reading several papers each week while missing out on the perspective and interpretation of our lecturers. We are still able to learn by just reading the material, but the presentation, interpretation, and framing matters to our understanding. With changing lecture times and information on assignments being dispersed and irregular, it’s easy to miss a class session or a task; whereas in regular personal meetings lecturers make sure to answer any questions we might have and explain tasks in more detail, instead of silently adding them somewhere while expecting us to adhere to strict deadlines. 

There seems to be the general assumption that we have tons of free time available because the university is closed. However, we are struggling to keep up with our jobs and potential loss of work, reorienting our entire learning routines, and, well, dealing with the baseline anxiety of experiencing a pandemic. 

Teaching versus learning

Dealing calmly with the current situation is certainly important. However, it would be reassuring for us if lecturers admitted that they are as overwhelmed as we are. While some acknowledge that this difficult situation leads to inefficiency, there is also a lack of guidance on their part. In addition, tasks like maintaining forums, communicating changes, and looking at course participants’ submissions are often handled by student teaching assistants, who have to negotiate their peers’ needs with their employers’ requests and expectations. 

We see a fundamental problem in the differing views on what the university understands as teaching and what students actually need for our learning. It seems to us that there is a widespread misconception that uploaded videos are an appropriate substitute for in-person lessons in a classroom. However, they are only marginally sufficient to our learning experience. We are aware that, currently, concessions are made, and do not expect our teachers to go above and beyond in these difficult times. But we need to not hear that this is some kind of new normal, or about how this could be an opportunity for creating new digital teaching curricula. While this is all we have right now, we value what in-person lessons bring to us. For example, a student might have questions during a lecture that could lead to a more in-depth discussion on a certain topic. With the current situation, students might not even have the option of posing questions. If they do, the environments are much more permanent. Learning is a process that includes vulnerability, as learning means also learning through mistakes and reflecting on misconceptions. Posting questions in a forum or text context means we have to expose our vulnerability more fundamentally and might still receive either no or only short, unsatisfactory answers, where the labor of going in depth might not feel warranted. 

Our intent here is not to complain and add to the pile of already overwhelmed educators. We reach out a hand in solidarity, one that asks you to check in with your students instead of focusing on the formal content. We are struggling as well. This is not normal, so let’s not pretend that it could be. 

— Catalina Sabie, Katharina Brunnmayr, Kristina Weinberger, Renée Sophie Singer, and Rafael Vrecar

Conclusion 

When I initially suggested writing this piece, I thought it was something to do, a somewhat productive way to engage students critically with the current situation; during the writing process, I realized how cathartic it was for them. What struck me even more though is that upon hearing their stories (some of which have not even made it in here), I was humbled and ashamed, but also in awe. Humbled because even though I thought I was aware of their perspective and tried accommodating them, I had not understood their experience nearly enough. Ashamed because I realized that in moving my lectures and seminars online, I only ever thought about my classes individually, never in the context of a curriculum. In awe because of their honesty and bravery to share their stories with us. I hope you can have similar conversations with your students about their experiences during this pandemic, though it should not require a shared experience to attend to those who struggle. And maybe we can take that with us once we return to in-person classes again. 

— Katta Spiel

Endnotes

1. Hauschildt, K., Vögtle, E.M., and Gwosć, C. Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe: EUROSTUDENT VI 2016-2018: Synopsis of Indicators. wbv, 2018.



Posted in: Covid-19 on Wed, May 13, 2020 - 1:31:59

Ana-Catalina Sabie

Ana-Catalina Sabie is a Romanian-born computer science student at the TU Wien who is passionate about photography and editing. catalinasabie@gmail.com
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Katharina Brunnmayr

Katharina Brunnmayr is a student at TU Wien. She is Interested in human-centered computing, gameful design, and human-computer interaction. k.brunnmayr@gmail.com
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Kristina Weinberger

Kristina Weinberger is currently pursuing a master's degree in media and human-centered computing in Vienna. She is interested in the intersection of gender and inclusive software design. k.weinberger@sigpie.at
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Renée Sophie Singer

Renée Sophie Singer is a user researcher, UX designer, web developer, and non-professional photographer, graphic designer, and illustrator. She is currently studying in the master’s program in media and human centered computing at TU Wien. renee.singer@posteo.net
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Rafael Vrecar

Rafael Vrecar is a student and tutor at TU Wien. rafael@vrecar.eu
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Katta Spiel

Katta Spiel is a postdoctoral researcher in the HCI Group at TU Wien. They currently research exceptional norms by focusing on marginalized bodies in interaction design. Their research combines critical theories with transformative designs focusing largely on aspects of gender and disability. katta.spiel@tuwien.ac.at
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