I was a Freshman in 2020: What will education be by 2040?
As a student who began her third level education at UCC online in 2020, Anna O'Connor shares her thoughts on online learning and the future of our education system.
This is the eighth part of the Our Cork 2040 series.
Cork city is set to double in size by 2040 under the government’s Project Ireland 2040 plans, with huge impacts not only on city-dwellers but on the whole county.
We believe it’s the people who live, work, raise families and face all of life’s challenges in Cork who really hold a stake in the future of the city and county.
Our Cork 2040 presents a variety of writers with different areas of expertise, experience and interest.
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Our Cork 2040: Anna O’Connor
Anna O’Connor is a 19-year-old student from Cork, currently studying English in UCC under a Quercus Talented Student Scholarship for Active Citizenship. She is the author of children’s Christmas book ‘Santa’s Magic Mask’ and is passionate about helping people.
Studying during 2020 - a fresh set of challenges for education
If there is anything we have learned from the last year, it is that our country desperately needs to take another look at our education system.
The Coronavirus crisis acted as a flashlight, highlighting some inherent issues in student’s lives - both at second and third level. There was much that we already knew.
Accommodation prices have and are skyrocketing, meaning that students must devote more time to working than studying.
The ever-toughening points race leads to undue stress on students, with emphasis placed on one set of final exams. There are undoubtedly very many issues and whilst issues in education are not exclusive to Ireland - and certainly not exclusive to Cork - there is much we need to look at.
Online learning: “smooth does not equate to perfect.”
With the onset of lockdown preventing students from attending in-person classes, online learning was an educational lifeline. The ability to learn from the safety of home meant that school life did not have to come to a complete standstill. Following the short term difficulty of actually moving all classes fully online, things began to run a little more smoothly. However sometimes, smooth does not equate to perfect.
The Freshmen of 2020
The first year of undergraduate college is famous worldwide. ‘Freshers’ is a key part of the college experience, not just because students get to go out and party, but because it is almost a rite of passage.
The act of settling into college life is not an easy one and getting to know the other students in your course or general college is extremely important, especially for students that have moved away from home. Societies, events, tutorials are all things designed to be in-person, and their very purpose is to make college life easier for those living it. Of course, the problems caused by the shift away from in-person education is not the fault of those running these things. We could not possibly have foreseen the need to move college entirely online. In fact, pre-2020, the very idea would have been ludicrous.
So what befell the Freshmen of 2020? After a difficult Leaving Cert year, those heading to college were met with an online university of sorts. For some, face-to-face was possible with short and infrequent labs held on campus. Those were the lucky ones, the ones that got to meet their peers.
Others were thrust into an entirely online world. As someone who was a member of this cohort, I can confidently say that I would be able to point out two members of my course if they passed me on the street and no more. Whilst the university itself provided a noble effort, seeing those who are supposed to be your new pool of friends for the first time in the box of a Zoom call is less than ideal.
Online college managed to solve some problems and, although it created many more (a lack of proper college experience, decreased learning and motivation for some, and a gap between the well-off and the not-so-well-off) its practical benefits in terms of commuting and accommodation cannot be denied. Such benefits beg the question: how will we learn in the next few years, and where will we be in 2040?
The Blending of In-Person and Online
For the rapidly approaching college year, a blended approach has been mooted. If case numbers are still high and new variants are proving themselves here to stay, this type of approach could make sense as the safest option.
Blended learning might solve some of the issues brought up by online learning. Students would have some time on campus, allowing them to meet and mix with their peers. Learning and motivation could increase, because it cannot be denied that class productivity is raised when in a lecture hall or classroom as opposed to a living room or kitchen.
Students would have face-to-face time with their lecturers and professors, allowing them to ask more questions and be more engaged. Limited time on campus might mean a staggered approach: already crowded lecture theatres are suddenly thinned, communal campus areas are able to fit the recommended number under Covid guidelines. It makes sense. Well, some sense, at least.
If we were to implement a blended approach, we would have to raise the question of accommodation.
Ah, accommodation. That word is rarely used without a string of issues following quickly behind it. Notorious for its high prices and low quality, student accommodation has gotten quite the name for itself over the years. As it is, students who move away from home are driven to work any job they can find, for any hours they can, in order to afford a roof over their heads.
The stereotype of ‘broke student’ is not unjustified and working hours like this can greatly take away from your study time, seeing as college is supposed to be akin to a full-time job. Accommodation can be worth it, however, when you are learning face-to-face with student accommodation in Cork a stone’s throw from UCC.
The infamous last-minute implementation of online learning in 2020, however, led to an accommodation crisis very different to the one that those words are usually linked to. Suddenly, some students found themselves with rooms in a county they didn’t even live in. With the virus making itself quite at home in student apartment buildings and the fact that students had no real need to be near the college, it made much more sense for them to just stay at home.Many landlords, however, refused to refund students for the time they were not living in the accommodation and students had no clue when they actually needed this accommodation from, with the dates for a structured return to in-person learning constantly being changed.
I was one of the lucky ones: I had opted to stay at home instead of paying for accommodation anyway, so I didn’t change my plans.
This year will prove different. Heading into the new academic year, landlords will not be able to force students to pay up front and instead, students can pay month by month. A model such as this will be extremely useful should college be moved entirely online again.
The “new normal” - is online learning here to stay?
The phrase most grating to people’s ears is without a doubt “the new normal.” These three words were repeated over and over again as we began to adjust to life with Covid. But is there yet another new normal - one we just don’t know about yet?
If we look at the problems that plagued students before 2020, accommodation was certainly one of the biggest.
Is it possible that the solution was born of solution? With ever-quickening technological advancements that are impossible to ignore, it is entirely probable that by 2040, the quality of online learning could be much higher than it is right now.
Perhaps the blended approach that is being lauded for 2021 could be the solution to the accommodation crises students are facing. Such an approach would mean that students could have the option to stay at home and learn remotely, perhaps even employing a flexible timetable that allows them to participate and grow in other areas and extra-curricular activities, without huge expenses. In order to ensure some face-to-face time and bonding with peers, students could spend a certain amount of time in college and pay for accommodation only when they need it.
I can’t say online learning is the dream.
It certainly is not my hope for future generations. I spent my first undergraduate year mourning the loss of my college experience. But is it possible that the college experience as we knew it no longer exists?
To blend or not to blend? That is the question.
Perhaps there is a “new normal,” after all. One which by 2040 will be the only system that students know.
It is not only third level institutes that could learn and change from the challenges faced over the pandemic. Secondary schools may alter their practices, too. The “predicted grades” model followed for the last two years could be the solution we have long been searching for to the stress and imperfections of the Leaving Cert.
Allowing students the option to choose between continuous assessment and a final set of exams seems the perfect option and ensures that we are never again struck in the same way we were in 2020. Although many might protest this; we are, after all, fans of the “Leaving Cert weather!”
While it is difficult to say just how we will learn in twenty years’ time, it’s fruitless to ignore some of the practical benefits of online learning.
To blend or not to blend? That is the question.
The answer might lie in how the next few years go and how students and colleges adjust to the idea of the new college experience. And though it’s a big question, it is safe to say that online learning is here to stay for now, at least.