Why the insistence on physical school?
The first week of the new academic year had just ended. For the past 2 years, I’ve been attending online university due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just like everyone else. As a fifth-year student, I’ve attended fully physical classes for my first 2 years. But this semester, as the school returned to a fully physical format, I can’t help but wonder if physical classes are really more effective than online classes? Here are some differences I noticed.
The school was crowded and chaotic. I had to squeeze through buses and walkways to my lesson venues. I’m rushing, I’m feeling anxious and of course, I’m sweaty. I entered a lecture theatre that was swarmed with students, and very soon, empty seats were hardly in sight. It was as if the venue capacity was exactly the module’s student intake. I felt “squashed” and was quite uncomfortable, as compared to when I took zoom lessons at home, in the comfort of my own study space.
I took out my laptop and placed it on my seat’s attached table. The table was small and made me feel restricted. Back at home, I had a working space large enough to fit my laptop, monitor, keyboard, and mouse, so it really was a “downgrade” in space in the lecture theatre.
As the lesson progressed, I noticed so many distractions. Students arriving late, fidgeting in their seats, or worse, browsing other websites. There was a lot of noise as well, from students mumbling, chit-chatting, and typing on their laptops. Some students had no qualms about typing loudly and “furiously”. I had to put in a very conscious effort to actually focus on the slides and the professor’s teaching, which left me quite drained post-lesson. This is a clear problem and online lessons mitigate this with the mute function of participants to minimise in-class disruptions.
Speaking of slides, I also realised that some professors’ slides were not clear, in terms of font and font size. If students were sitting too far back, they might struggle to follow along smoothly. This is a clear difference from online classes: when the teacher shares their screen during lessons, the slides are displayed on each student’s laptop. The closer proximity makes it easier to see which part of the slides the teacher is referring to.
Some classroom venues have very limited power points. So unless you head to the venue early enough and “chope” the seats near the power points, you got to make sure that your laptop has sufficient battery life to last through the entire lesson duration. Not every student’s laptop has a strong battery life, especially after a year of usage. For myself, I need to turn on “power saver” mode and start with at least 90% battery to last through a 2-hour lecture. Back at home, since power points are always available and within reach, I don’t have to constantly worry about whether my laptop would run out of battery.
Admin wise, online classes make it easier for attendance taking and tracking of class participation. Hosts (usually professors and teaching assistants) can see our names in the meeting rooms and when we speak, our names are “spotlighted”, so it’s clear to them who is speaking. Versus in current physical classes, our masked faces are seen but teachers may have to first ask what’s our name before (or after) we speak. In business school, students are expected to bring their name tags to the class which tackles that issue. But, this is not universal across all other faculties (e.g., computing).
Another difference between physical and online classes is the need to travel between classrooms. Although lessons are expected to end 15–30 mins earlier for 1–3 hours classes, we may still have to physically rush to the next lesson venue, especially if the next class is in another faculty. On one hand, you get to exercise, but on the other hand, it can get tiring if you have a whole day of lessons. As for online lessons, going to the next class is easy as it is within reach with a simple click of a meeting link.
Nonetheless, I do appreciate how physical classes allow me to meet a few friends on campus, and also make new ones more organically! In-class discussions will probably be smoother since we see one another face-to-face, without any lag from poor internet connections. However, I’m still adamant about schools’ stance that classes must be physical for utmost learning effectiveness. Perhaps an optimal arrangement would be to keep tutorials and labs physical due to its smaller class size and need for discussions, but keep cohort-wide lectures to online mode?
Thank you for reading!