‘It’s going to be a different experience’: preparing for online learning at uni

The 2020-21 academic year is going to be like no other. Shaken up by coronavirus, campuses have spent the summer rapidly redrawing their curriculum in anticipation of a “blended” approach that combines online learning with classroom teaching where possible.

“It’s going to be a very different experience, especially for students who haven’t been to university before,” says Sana Ali, wellbeing officer at the University of Leicester’s students’ union. That means your tech choices are more important than ever – so do your research before buying a laptop.

That said, courses are being designed to make sure you can access teaching equally, whatever hardware you have. If you’re worried about your tech specs, contact your university. “The expectation is that students who can’t afford it will be provided with a laptop,” says Pablo Charro de la Fuente, education officer at Newcastle University’s students’ union.

Online learning will look a little different to the normal university experience. Large lectures are unlikely to happen in person because of the need for social distancing. Instead, they’ll most likely be recorded and uploaded as a video to your virtual learning environment (usually the Blackboard or Canvas systems, accessed via a web browser – there are also tablet and smartphone apps). Some small seminars may happen in person, but many will take place on video-calling services: Microsoft Teams is the most common, but others will use Zoom, so download both.

Many students took their laptops to lectures and seminars before coronavirus for note-taking, and you can do the same at home. Almost all universities give their students access to the Microsoft digital suite of apps such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint, so you can take notes and prepare presentations. If you’re doing a technical degree such as engineering or architecture, your school will advise you on – and most likely provide – any specialist software you need. Google Drive is also free and allows easier collaboration for group work. Evernote is a good note-taking app, available across laptops, smartphones and tablets. You’ll also want access to a cloud server: Microsoft Sharepoint should come with your university email, and allows you to save files remotely to work on.

Teams and Zoom can also be used outside the classroom, to meet and catch up with friends. “A big part of university isn’t just the education, but societies and meeting people and the new experiences you have,” says Ali. Students’ unions and societies are making extra effort to ensure the socialising that usually occurs in freshers’ week doesn’t disappear.

“Societies are transferring a lot online, but there are some things we’ll miss,” admits Sara Elkhawad, welfare and equality officer at Newcastle University’s students’ union. To get the best experience possible, make sure when you get to uni you download the students’ union’s app – this will help you coordinate online introductory events.

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