Remote Learning and Isolation: My Own Thoughts…

Eleanor King

as part of Isolation Diaries

2019 and 2020 have been two binaries for me. The joy of finally graduating with an English Literature degree from the University of Cambridge was quickly met with uncertainty, as with most graduates, about where my life was heading next. Summer 2019 was a whirlwind of working abroad, catching flights on my own for the first time, and exploring new cities with my favourite people – all the while wondering how to make a career out of travelling, my favourite hobby.

2020, I guess you could say, quite literally grounded those plans.

But I have another great love – the world of digital media. I am fascinated by how the realm of media is a roaring voice of empowerment, a place where users can stay connected and united in an age of increasing isolation. It is this overspilling of the digital world into the “real” world to advocate change that makes me truly proud to be a young person in today’s uncertain climate. Enrolling into a Masters course at UCL’s Institute of Education to explore this was therefore euphoric for me – I couldn’t wait to find home in a new and exciting city, and immerse myself in London’s vast culture. I envisioned myself using the tube, grabbing coffee with friends, and studying outside in the summer against the backdrop of the majestic Wilkins Building.

But, to throw in another curveball, this would be all conducted online. 2020 once more rearing its unpredictable head.

Now in a cruelly ironic twist, one would think that the Covid-19 “working remotely” reality would be a dream for a digital media student, a real-life case study, a petri dish in which we could explore in real-time the effects of distance learning. And having written my undergraduate dissertation about the effects of screen mediation, this is surely right up my street, right? I can assure you that this is not the case.

As I sit at home, the disembodied voices of my lecturers and my fellow classmates ringing out of my laptop, I cannot help but feel cheated. Cheated out of the opportunity to meet these wonderful people in real life, and thwarted from the chance to form intimate connections with my peers. Suddenly, both academics and students are one – united by not only our passion for our subject, but also the incessant “technical difficulties” that spring into this new reality. Now, connection issues disjoint our seminars, the flow of our conversations interrupted by our faces and voices freezing and jumping. This chaos is coupled with the overwhelmingly-full Microsoft Teams sessions which wouldn’t feel nearly as crowded if we were seated in person side by side. Suddenly, our vocabulary has been dominated by the words “Zoom” and “Breakout Rooms.” We are plagued by digital fatigue, a newfound condition that has infiltrated our daily lives. We are, to put it simply, exhausted.

And yet amongst this chaos, the new student life feels empty. Isolated. Distanced in more ways than one. Not only have I started the next step of my academic journey from my childhood bedroom, but I face beloved social events over webcam. I think about the wasted potential for more exciting in-person events with a heavy heart, wondering, “what if things had been different?” There is a blank space where the human interaction element of university should be. And honestly, at this moment in time, I feel like I have taken a massive step backwards.

I long to grab a seat in a lecture hall, breathless and with minutes to spare until it begins, and chat to the person seated next to me. I even miss the “when-things-go-wrong” scenarios – sitting in the wrong lecture hall, a humanities student surrounded by economists. While online lectures are still enriching, there is a massive elephant in the room for generation e-learning: the impact that this year of isolation has had on our mental health. Pessimism is very real at the moment, and it is deafening.

Covid-19 has stolen some life events from us. For me, the ability to meet my classmates in person, as we all tune into our lectures and seminars from all over the globe. Yet it has given me hope as well, in showing the resilience of the human spirit in the face of disarray. I realise that the UCL community transcends physical location, and I am greatly comforted. Now, I have learnt to laugh as our seminars spiral into a tangent about how to create Breakout Rooms, as I realise that this is a learning curve for everybody. Having to rely on Zoom calls for society meetings means that we are all aware of the need to be kinder, more understanding, and more forgiving when things do go wrong. And, ultimately, it gives me comfort that when the UCL community does reunite, it will be more meaningful than ever before. As a new resident of this global family, I cannot wait.

This appeared in Issue 74