£9250 a year for not a single in person seminar, really?

Your lecturer can’t look at your work over a zoom call

I am paying £9250 a year for not a single in-person contact hour, and I am being told that my educational experience has been completely unaffected. Seriously? Are universities genuinely taking this line?

Moving seminars online was a decision taken by many universities in an attempt to protect students and staff from Covid and to limit campus activity. However, whilst this wins huge points in the logistics and risk assessment departments it bears no consideration for the impact on educational experience and student wellbeing.

For many students, including myself, seminars are a fundamental part of how we learn. Throughout the first two years of my degree, I found that it was the open discussions that I was able to have in my PGTAs (another term for seminar) that allowed me to understand the material being covered in that week’s lectures and address anything I was confused about.

Since seminars have been put online, they have lost all sense of informality and discussion. Due to the nature of videoconferencing facilities such as Zoom and Teams, there is no way for multiple conversations to take place at once (aside from in breakout rooms). This leads to stagnating discourse, perpetuating awkward silences and placing uncomfortable spotlights on students when they require help.

All in all, an online seminar is essentially just another lecture with a smaller group of people, so why are we treating it like it isn’t?

There are an array of issues with the ‘online seminar’; some which are course-specific and others affect all students, regardless of degree. All of these take away from a seminar’s integrity and hinder student education. Many students have also seen the number of seminars they have cut significantly. None of this seems conducive to a successful university learning experience.

To begin, let’s look at the general issues that are affecting all students regardless of their degree subject.

Connectivity Issues

Let’s all begin by addressing our student finances, the large majority of us are surviving off the remainder of our loans or small salaries from part-time jobs. So, where we are supposed to find the money to access top quality wifi capable of supporting an online lecture let alone multiple lectures when our flatmates have lecture clashes?

Paying close to £100 a month for wifi as a student is obscene and for most students is not an option.

Oh, and don’t think that eduroam is much better. We have spoken to first years who are having their wifi crash and they can’t stream their online lecture.

You’re never going to contribute to an online seminar from a public space

Many lecturers have suggested that the solution to connectivity issue is to use another source of wifi such as a library or coffee shop. This is all well and good until you consider your surroundings.

The coffee shop: is loud, is a place where others around you are socialising and is not set up as a studying environment. So doing your seminar here can be distracting not just for you but also for the others in your class who will be overwhelmed with background noise every time you switch your mic on.

Coffee shops in England are now also closed apart from for takeaways, but last time I checked takeaway wifi wasn’t a thing. 

The library/ student study spaces: are absolutely fine when you are watching a lecture, you can sit in silence with your headphones in, in a designated study space. How does this translate to a seminar where student participation is required you ask? It doesn’t. Out of all the UCL libraries and study spaces, the only ones that do not have the expectation you are silent are the limited social study spaces in the student centre. It is impossible to contribute, aside from through typing, if you are in a study space. Therefore, any questions you may have, any points you may want to make are limited to the chat function where it is difficult enough to articulate yourself already.

It is uncomfortable and off-putting knowing your seminar is being recorded

The idea of a seminar is to make you feel comfortable asking questions that you don’t want to ask in a lecture theatre full of people. Now, rather than have 100 people on hand to witness your ‘stupid question’ it’s now recorded and stuck on lecture cast forever and every one of your course mates can refer back to it.

In what way does this create for a comfortable and less stressful learning environment?

Once again this encourages people to remain quiet, hold back their questions and inhibit their own learning.

Breakout rooms are the only solution to small group conversations :/

If you were in doubt as to how bad breakout rooms actually are let me provide you with some evidence:

I’m going to give you 20 minutes to discuss these 26 breakout room memes

Break out rooms are the actual worst part of being a student in 2020

• ‘We were all silent for 45 minutes’: Students share their worst breakout room stories

The issue with using breakout rooms in seminars is, wherein a face to face environment you would choose to sit with your friends or the people you know and work through the work together, break out rooms are allocated randomly. The probability of you being sat in a room of strangers on your phone or in silence and not actually completing the task at hand is extremely high.

When you waste 20 minutes of your seminar in a silent room you are left asking yourself what was the point in attending the lecture at all?

You’re being socially stunted

Whilst this doesn’t directly affect the outcome of your degree, this one does affect your overall uni experience- which let’s be real is part of what we pay for. Seminars are one of the places where you actually get to make friends with people on your course, being in a class of 10 gives you the opportunity to get to know people a bit better.

However, you’re not going to befriend someone through their faceless name box on zoom, it’s like befriending your Alexa, they aren’t real.

Whilst these issues affect us all there are some that are even more pressing for particular styles of subjects.

Texts aren’t being read let alone discussed– English

We spoke to Arden, a 3rd year English student, who told us that no one bothers to try in their seminars which are 2 hours long because the professor can’t exactly make eye contact with someone over zoom. So the texts aren’t getting discussed and some people aren’t even bothering to read them in the first place.

They said, “everyone just sits in silence on their phones and ignores each other.”

My work ethic is gone – Classics

We spoke to Nick a Classics finalist who told us that seminars had “Destroyed the very fragile work ethic I already had, fact that I don’t need to leave my room means I just stay in bed and sleep through everything”. In a subject like Classics, seminars were so important because you were typically expected to prepare and translate for a PGTA class and would be picked on at random to contribute, forcing you to pay attention.

Now, you can access translations online, not bother preparing anything before class, mute the whole thing and go back to sleep.

I am also a Classics student and where my seminars previously revolved around class contribution exercises and the freedom to ask questions on the content covered in the lectures, they are now just another lecture with a PowerPoint and a tutor talking at you. It’s impossible to learn a language like this.

I can’t engage with the material – History

We spoke to Alienor a history student who said “Due to the amount of work I am expected to do online between lectures, readings, essays and now seminars it is just impossible to stay focussed, engage with the material and learn anything.”

Shifting everything online is hugely decreasing attention spans, many academics argue that online attention spans may be as little as 10 minutes. So how are students expected to follow over 6 hours of online teaching a day and then complete all the work expected of them?

I feel like I could just read textbooks – Spanish

We spoke to a Spanish Student Arron and he said “For Spanish seminars, I feel like losing the conversational and face to face aspect has been a lot more detrimental. There’s less pressure to speak and engage with the oral side of language learning. I feel like I could just read Spanish textbooks and watch video explanations on YouTube and I’d be getting pretty much the same education.”

At this point, you might as well try and complete your degree on Duolingo. Even if you upgrade to a premium account you’re only paying £80 instead of £9250.

Graphs, charts and diagrams are way too small – Physics

We spoke to Sam a physics student who told us that “I watch my lectures from my iPad mini because I can’t afford a computer, lecturers put loads of information on slides which appear as tiny on my screen. Graphs, charts and diagrams are way too small to interpret and I just feel as though I’m getting nothing out of the lecture.”

Just compare a huge projection screen in a lecture hall to the size of an iPad mini screen and then tell the education quality is completely unaffected by online uni.

So once again, I am asking what the hell my money is being spent on? What educational benefits I am supposed to be getting out of these extra lectures (lol let’s stop pretending they aren’t seminars, they don’t even come close)? And, what are universities going to do about it?