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Blog post Part of special issue: Transitions, wellbeing and mental health: Education after lockdown

From Zoom to room: The transition back to in-person learning in higher education

George Clayton, Undergraduate Student at University of Roehampton

In March 2020, in the wake of a global health pandemic, universities worldwide were forced to close their campuses and switch rapidly to online methods so they could continue to provide teaching and learning. Over two years later, the majority of students are back on campus; many are still feeling the stress and anxiety associated with online learning while others have welcomed the benefits of alternative delivery methods. Certainly students’ experiences of these transitions are individual and varied; here, I share some of the unexpected changes I had to navigate in my first year at university. 

As I have yet to transition back to the physical classroom full time, I find myself in something of a ‘hybrid learning limbo’; one in which new ways of pandemic-adapted teaching have leaked into the traditional and found themselves stuck. The pre-Covid classroom has morphed into what could perhaps be lightly described as a sound recording studio for lecturers, with optional seating available for a live audience. 

Fortunately, my course, psychology and counselling, started in October 2021 with in-person classes. I remember attending the first lecture and being amazed at seeing so many people together in one room. It was one of the most populated rooms I’d stepped into since the pandemic-enforced lockdowns. This was not a negative feeling I had been hoping to experience live lectures, as the experience of online teaching was not appealing. In lessons, I like to ask questions, feel engaged with the topic and transport myself away from places I associate with rest like my bedroom in order to learn effectively. 

On reflection, I must admit that a small part of me was not averse to online learning. At 23, I qualified as a mature student, and I felt some apprehension starting my undergraduate studies alongside younger peers. I was genuinely worried about my ability to readapt to a classroom environment, something I had not experienced since 2016. Somehow, online learning instinctively felt like an easier option to cope with such a high-stakes endeavour. Not having to worry about how others would perceive me was attractive; it felt like you could remain anonymous, unjudged.  

Realising that I preferred face-to-face teaching to online delivery was happenstance. In early December 2021, I caught Covid-19 and had to isolate for eight days, so I had no choice but to learn remotely. Tuning into the live-streamed lecture, I immediately found myself missing out on opportunities to ask questions and offer my own insights. It wasn’t down to the technology; a chat box is available alongside the live lecture. It was just that the lecturer skipped this or was perhaps just giving their full attention to the students attending in person. Nonetheless, my remote learner experience was definitely diminished. 

‘The current hybrid learning culture has evolved as a direct consequence of the pandemic, and the option to choose your preferred method of learning feels inclusive and ideal for supporting students’ diverse needs.’ 

People learn in different ways. I prefer the dynamic of a live classroom, but I can still understand why some students prefer to learn online. The current hybrid learning culture has evolved as a direct consequence of the pandemic, and the option to choose your preferred method of learning feels inclusive and ideal for supporting students’ diverse needs. For example, exams that would have previously happened in an imposing exam hall, on one specific date, are currently administered online, and students can decide when they take them within an extended timeframe. This allows every student to study at their own pace, which, for me, significantly alleviated exam-related stress. 

Curiously, I found myself developing my own hybrid study practices, approaching some online tasks as if I was physically engaging with a face-to-face activity. For example, I would set myself a specific date and time for my online exams and stick to it, to create a personalised goal. Also, when I had to access online lectures and workshops from home, due to having Covid-19, I found myself dressing in clothes I’d typically wear to class, waking up at the same time and going through my usual daily routine for attending university. This helped me to muster maximum focus and maintain a strong study ethic. 

Despite the huge increase in technologies in higher education, which bring multiple benefits, personally, I’ve found online learning not as effective as learning alongside peers in a physical space on campus. For me, the ability to really be there in the present, to smell the classroom, to hear the pencils on paper and to engage with an enthusiastic lecturer is an unparalleled experience that makes me grateful I chose to go to university.