OPINION: Remote Learning in January is a Stealth Attack on its Own

By Rory Morrow – Deputy & Sports Editor

Here, I deviate from my normal sports writing to recap a dramatic week, and represent student feelings about not only a return to online learning but how Queen’s University has treated us, its students, over the pandemic.

Last Monday, on the 20th of December, the news broke that Queens were returning their student’s education back to an online setting for January. At the time, I was returning from a run with two fellow Queens students; friends from the athletics society. As we scanned our phones on returning, instead of pleasantly astonishing average paces neatly surmised on our screens, we instead discovered an email from the university with the ominous subject “Important update. Change to teaching arrangements for January 2022”. So then, like many of our peers, you could imagine our confusion at a BBC News article seemingly published a whole hour prior to the email QUB sent out to its befuddled staff and students. Was this announcement innocently informative, told only to those of whom it was of relevance? Or was it yet another attempted PR coup to misleadingly paint QUB in an angelic, lifesaving, ‘bowing down to COVID’ way? Perhaps they intended it to come off as a quietly authoritative public declaration, when really the subsequent reaction to it paints them in the light of an ill-advised stunt; like a cocky youth riding their bike on one wheel. If so, then their student audience, instead of politely applauding, have justifiably attempted to detain QUB in the stocks of online protest. Posts on QUB Love’s posts have varied from pent-up ranting frustration, whilst others are blunt but extremely effective in the question they pose. For future interrogations of Boris, you may want to start taking notes around now, Keir. Never mind the news itself, it is the manner of its delivery which reeks of cowardice, and which has seen QUB placed rightly under the public, student spotlight over the past week.

Restrictions

The timing itself is mildly odd. The popular view amongst students affected by this announcement is that it is legally non=binding, practically unnecessary, mentally withdrawing, and brutally soul-crushing. Queens University made this announcement on Monday. The Northern Ireland Executive did not announce and implement any new restrictions until Wednesday. Even by then, education had not been mentioned and by contrast, Ulster University students are largely staying on campus. As one QUB Love post commented:

“I don’t see any restrictions to do with schools/universities announced today”

Post from QUB Love

We didn’t see any because there are none. Now don’t get me wrong, recent surges in the Omicron variant of the coronavirus are of course, a concern. But we cannot continue to pull the blinds, batten down the hatches, and altogether hunker down stockpiled with loo roll and baked beans. Lockdown obedience (as we all undertook in March 2020, that is except for the government plus some convenient sports scapegoats, including Jack Grealish) do not intentionally neglect the global issues of poverty and impending climate change calamity. Yet by choosing to work, live and breathe from home, opportunities inevitably become more limited for these people to make a direct impact.

Chancellor Clinton’s installation ceremony may have been a good PR day for Queens, but the recent decision to return to online learning may not.

Society must learn to live with and adapt to the coronavirus. I know this is impossible for some, and I am well aware that we are indeed still in (and most likely heading into) “strange and difficult times” – don’t you just love pandemic nuances like that. Yet, as a student, I am confident that I speak for most of my course mates and friends by saying that we are exhausted by QUB’s continued flippism with regards to students and staff; it’s taking a serious toll on our mental health – a serious toll without justification at present. An informal poll on QUB Love this Boxing Day – concerned as to whether students are satisfied with their university experience – has 183 students out of 188 polling as ‘unsatisfied’ at the time of writing.

Ask yourself this Ian Greer and Co., if Clinton’s inauguration ceremony, or your feelgood PR days of well-deserved graduations – something nice and cheerful to dispel any nasty strikes news, eh – were scheduled for this January, would these also be shunned online? Would you inform the various media outlets not to attend with a hasty email three days into their holidays, knowing that your backbone for not replying comes from your own decision to wave the white flag when the war has already ended? How cunningly snide.

Common Sense (Or a Lack Of)

Yet, if preventing further deaths from this new strain of COVID is as dear to QUB hearts as they proclaim, there are some damning hypocrisies for them to address. Evidently, whoever typed the line “Please note, however, that assessments taking place during the week commencing Tuesday 4 January will proceed as planned” was not singing from the same hymn sheet as management.

“So, it’s too dangerous for us to have in person classes but in person exams are still happening in January?”

Post from QUB Love

This to-the-point QUB Love post encapsulates the exasperation at yet more indecision. Its almost remarkable how the email doesn’t detail newly enhanced 4m social distancing pods manned by mask-wearing trolls offering you balaclavas to carry out these hijinks of semi-social interaction. Because we all know mask-wearing students in an exam-hall setting are far more likely to transmit the virus than two booths of six back-to-back in Wetherspoons all night.

Whilst the Students’ Union bar will remain open, the opportunity to make friends on courses is closed this January

As the Gown’s social media captions have already touched upon, learning online is just not the same. This is not just about the dreariness of Microsoft Teams or over-relied-on house WiFi by moving its students back online, QUB has stripped yet more of our promised student experience from us. An experience, that the Students Union’s President, Katie Ni Chleire rightly states has ”suffered greatly”. It is Hebe Lawson’s, QR’s Station Manager, point however that resonates most with me. Returning online not only (arguably) asks more of us, but it deprives us of the little too; accidentally routine jigs that you force yourself through the lecture for, like “talking to other people on the course and meeting for coffee”. And of course, QUB technically aren’t starving us of this. We have social media to chat, a seemingly endless supply of coffee chains to choose from. But what we no longer have is the foundation platform that enables these basic but oh so important communications. The sturdy backbone that allows plans to develop and tickets to be purchased, chats, queues, chance encounters on campus, lunching together- its not as though we can all do this on non-lecture days. The in-person lecture serves a previously unappreciated function of providing a meeting location, time, and common interest to talk about and steadily become more intimately close. Like a new puppy joining the family, initially the dog already there is tentative, hostile even no matter the pup’s incessant energy and sniffing. However, give them a stick they can chase with interest and connections begin to be made. Humans are, lest we forget, social beings. There are only so many lockdowns we can tolerate before our social cells shut down. Especially here, I came to university to meet people, which I have but there are also undoubtedly others who I haven’t or won’t meet because of QUB’s educational choices.

Online Benefits

There are advantages to online learning. The lazy convenience of grabbing your laptop from your bed. Your silent glee at avoiding the effort of having to get up earlier to shower, dress, and eat. If the lecturers are fun-minded and engaging, online can even be enjoyable. Crucially, it is also accessible with people able to voice opinions in verbal and written form. As Disabled Student Officer Erryn Killiner reminded us in the recently created Autonomous Students Group for those who wish to be online, that is perfectly okay.

Reverting to a digital platform is not where my or my peer’s ire lies. It is the constant U-turns, mirroring Boris Johnson’s car crash of capable leadership. Furthermore, there is something downbeat about management making this decision for us with no chatter of it on the web; not so much as a consultation. If they themselves were the students on the receiving end of their decisions, would they be satisfied? Perhaps the digital setting we have adjusted to has become too comfortable an armchair for them to lazily sag into, that the online platform which brings them so much less inconvenience has enveloped them so far into their money-making schemes and PR appetisers, that they have completely neglected the issue that their students are in the real world outside of their course? As an anonymous student said to the Gown, online is a grand substitute but should not become a permanent replacement to a teacher. Its supplement undoubtedly has a shelf life regarding its quality.

I know, how ironic that is at the point of this article where your head may be lolling, and eyes cautiously flitting to the turkey leftovers. The point is this, the quality of online learning itself may not deteriorate, but how we students continue to absorb and understand it undoubtedly does. Even in a supposedly online setting last year on a group project making a video about the environmental crisis, I spent as much time on campus working and filming with my group as I did “online”.

Petition

“Can we all sign something and go to the press with it? Probably will affect QUB more”

Post from QUB Love

For me, this QUB Love post hits the nail on the head. Queens have put us back online and enforced McClay mask minders to the back of our eyelids to score brownie points with those affected by Omicron, especially if they are wealthy and prominently well-regarded in a public sphere. So, just like the Strikes campaign in November, students are acting. A petition to stop QUB from reverting to online learning in the New Year has 1,463 signatures at the time of writing. And yes, COVID is rife right now. But what is the point of being vaccinated if we follow this up by not living life? Backtracking to lockdowns displays a lack of confidence in the vaccine’s effectiveness and public reliability – always a heated debate – by the States and suck-up Capitalist institutions following suit. The recently released Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence, is a comedic jarring of people in power remaining hellbent on having power being hatefully oblivious to the minor detail that there will be no power to seize and clasp onto. You know when Earth is destroyed.

As we head into 2022, Covid-19 needs to remain as stringently in the 2020 history timeline as possible. The pandemic cannot continue to be used repeatedly as a shield to deflect from other problems or be puppeteer-ed as a smokescreen behind which Downing Street parties, Ian Greer’s innocuous spending habits (50k on a house last year whilst others were and are laid off), and other toiling evils plot away in their spotty dungeons, concocting woe. QUB may be retreating inside its mansion but having already thrown their students and staff to the wolves, management will hope the institution is robust enough to “bluster, bluster” and somehow detract from the biggest oncoming siege of dissent yet seen by its recipients. Ironically, typing QUB into Google brings up its now ill-famed Motto “Shaping a better world from 1845”. A better world for who? Until PR goodwill takes precedence? In the third series of Spooks, Harry Pearce, as ever doggedly battling the political influences, provides a message that QUB management could learn a lot from. If powerful individuals don’t watch out, then there won’t be a world for them to be powerful in or us inferior to.

Bleakly inspiring? Welcome to QUB and the current Earth climate; Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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