University in Lockdown: Remote Learning in Edinburgh

When I accepted my place to study Music Technology at the University of Edinburgh little over three years ago, I never thought my studies would be affected to this extent. Having already experienced three different UCU strike periods, I had hoped that it would be relatively plain sailing until my graduation in 2021. But with the global Coronavirus pandemic, the UK went into lockdown forcing schools, universities, museums and libraries to close. All teaching and learning was moved online meaning that I haven’t set foot in a university building in over four months.

I ended up completing my third year of Music Technology at the desk in my bedroom and I’m now awaiting my final results, which have been a tad delayed in being released. Whilst my usual, ‘Lookback on [insert year] of University,’ blog post will make an appearance on the blog eventually, I wanted to write a separate one to specifically document my studying habits and the adjustments that were made for my education during this time.

Classic WFH set-up

Coming from one of the smallest undergraduate degree programmes in the university, my remote learning experience during the pandemic is probably unique to everyone else’s. I want to clarify that I’m definitely not speaking on behalf of all students, whether we attend the same university or not. I have no doubt there will be occasional overlap, even if it’s just a few emails across subject areas, but this blog post may only be a vague overview of challenges that other students have faced. If you’re also a student reading this, I’d love to know how you have been managing your studies, mental health and lifestyle so please leave a comment or shoot me a DM. I’m curious to see how different universities and departments have been reacting to the pandemic and if anyone else knows what is going on.

I have a folder in my student email dedicated to updates about the university during the pandemic. The first email saved is from the 10th of March containing the words, “the university is expected to operate as normal.” Less than three days later, an email was sent by Peter Mathieson, the Principal, announcing that there had been an emergency meeting and a decision had been made to move to “the remote delivery of teaching,” by the 23rd of March. This U-turn coincided with the nationwide lockdown that would have forced the university to close anyway. However the slight heads up meant that we had about two weeks to go on campus to return equipment and collect any work, documents or files that we may need to complete our studies for that year.

All first and second year exams were cancelled whilst third, fourth and fifth year exams were moved online. I was already very happy to not have any exams for my courses this semester but even more so at the time of the announcement. My friends were a little worried because none of us knew how an online exam would work and how grades could be affected. For some , it meant a 48 hour “take home” exam and for others it was the usual allotted exam time plus an extra hour to submit. Either way, the thought of having to do something as bleugh as an exam in my home and happy place, is a no from me.

Being in my third year of university and taking honours level courses, all of my grades would count towards my final result when I graduated. Knowing that I’m not the most productive student at home I was seriously concerned about how my education would be affected because of the fact that I’m such an easily distracted person. We were assured that special circumstances would be taken into account for each student at that results would act on a non-detrimental basis. Therefore if I were to submit a piece of coursework or sit and exam that would eventually lower my mark, the work was discounted. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t suddenly going to fail all of my classes but it did mean I was less motivated to complete work if I was already sitting on a grade that I was happy with.

Before switching to remote learning, I had my best university class attendance rate yet. I was only able to practice my new habit for six weeks of the semester before the UCU strikes hit and lockdown followed immediately after. Luck would have it that at the time when I was actually motivated to go to class, I no longer could. Unlike my friends in other subjects, my online classes weren’t livestreamed by a teacher in their home where I had the opportunity to ask questions in real time. Some materials were uploaded online and I could contact lecturers for further information if I needed it but it didn’t feel like an engaging learning experience anymore. I lost a lot of my motivation and only looked at coursework if it would specifically help me with assignments. This was a blessing and a curse because the lack of interaction with lecturers, meant that I focused my time on assessed work to try and gain a better mark.

It’s strange to think back to the beginning of 2020 when I didn’t know that Microsoft Teams or Zoom existed. Since then I’ve had quite a fair bit of both in my life so I can attend student representative meetings as well as quiz nights with my friends. I also had a 1-1 online tutorial with my lecturer to discuss my upcoming programming project. I was a bit nervous going into it because I find those meetings a lot easier in person when I can just show someone my idea rather then trying to figure out how to share my screen. Maybe I should now add “proficiency in communication software,” to my CV.

This programming project was worth 65% of my grade. Even though my lecturer has had me every year since 2017 and is familiar with my lack of programming skills, I was determined to use my extra time (a bonus to having no classes) to attempt to push my capabilities and gain at outcome that was worthy of a decent mark. However to do this, I also needed access to software that I usually relied on the university computers for. During the time of the pandemic, a lot of companies released temporary licenses for access to their software which ended up being a lifesaver for me. It meant that I could have a 90-day trial period to Ableton Live free of charge instead of paying around ¬£200 for a permanent license I didn’t need for very long.

For me, this semester wasn’t entirely music-focused as I took an outside class in business. This meant that I got to experience slightly different ways the crisis was handled across subject areas within the University of Edinburgh. When the announcement was made about the closure of the university we were in the midst of a group project that was to conclude with a report and presentation. For me, public speaking is somewhat of a strength of mine and I was concerned that if the presentations would be cancelled, I would lose out on my potential best mark of the year. The lead up to the presentations was a bit of a nightmare because as most international students had gone home we were coordinating online group meetings across multiple time zones. The presentations thankfully went ahead, but like our group meetings they were via Zoom. It’s a very strange experience giving a client presentation this way especially when you have a CEO of a major company chilling in his living room listening to you talk. By the end of it, I was really pleased with how it went and if anything, it only made me more confident in my skills which was reinforced by the fact my group received an A.

Our presentation date stayed the same despite the chaos that unfolded around us because our clients were unavailable at any other time. This was the exception and I was very happy when all my other deadlines were extended by a week, including the coinciding group report. Despite being in my flat all the time and having nothing better or more productive to do, I still managed to procrastinate most of my coursework like nobody’s business. All my assessments were due within a single week, so having a little bit of extra time meant that I didn’t have to overwork myself and I could work to original deadlines if I wanted to. It helped to prevent my spontaneous combustion over the workload and global crisis. I managed to make all my extended deadlines easily but there was also a 48 hour grace period within my school (Edinburgh College of Art) that would wave any late penalties that fell within that time frame.

Being the student representative for my degree year, I attended the most recent Music student-staff liaison committee (SSLC) meeting to get some updates and (hopefully) answers. Almost every single question asked to a member of staff by a student rep from any year was answered with “I don’t know.” It’s not surprising that nobody has any answers right now especially given the nationwide uncertainty but it didn’t exactly fill me with hope for next year. It remains to be seen how the music department and university as a whole will function when September rolls around. The plan currently seems to be a hybrid approach with on and off campus teaching but were still waiting for confirmation on what classes will actually be running next year, never mind how they will run. In an ideal world, it would be back to normal with all in-person classes going ahead but it won’t be possible to do and keep everyone safe.

As I look towards my final year of university, I am moderately terrified. This would likely be the case, pandemic or not, but it just adds a whole new level of panic to my impending graduation. I’m hoping fourth year will be when I figure out what I want to do with my degree and my life following university but at this rate, I’m not sure if it’ll still feel like I’m in university. I’m hoping that by this time next year, I’ll be able to attend my graduation ceremony at McEwan Hall and then buy the newspaper that has my name in it. I don’t know if these are realistic goals to have but I can dare to dream.

Becca x

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