How unis can restore student life in a COVID-normal world

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A quiet campus on wintry July days in Melbourne is not an uncommon sight. A result of semester break. However, as a new semester gets underway for most of the universities, once again we find ourselves in a lockdown.

The usual fanfare of student clubs, carnivals, back-to-back orientation events, and gaggles of excited new students searching for their lectures might still not happen. For over 18 months, the pre-COVID-19 vibrant campus life is absent. Missing out on this experience has had a significant impact on students.

There are things universities can do to keep students connected to a social life during the pandemic. Credit:Wayne Taylor

Even before the pandemic, creating a sense of identity and belonging within the academic community was challenging and disconcerting for many students. Not being on campus and lack of in-person social connections and contacts, has made it even more difficult and has negatively impacted student engagement and overall student wellbeing.

Studying on campus isn’t just about academic gains and knowledge. An important aspect of campus life is the social element experienced by students; hanging out after a class, studying for a group assignment, attending extra-curricular lectures and seminars and much more.

For students, making and maintaining social connections are crucial. This ‘social networking’ extends beyond their immediate university circle into professional life. Meeting alumni, connecting with industry partners, doing internships – most of these activities have been disrupted.

This is not to say that our students haven’t found new ways of connecting. Online study groups, and WhatsApp or Messenger-based group chats have happened in parallel to their formal academic learning. For some students, this online environment has offered them access to communities and events that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, due to their unique circumstances. However, these are a handful of students. The majority of students are not thrilled about having to study online in a rather fragmented way.

There are many students for whom university campus is more than a place to study, it is a place of escape – a haven. These students may not have a proper environment to concentrate on their studies at home – inadequate facilities, not enough space, unsafe situations. For these students, the last 18 months have been really difficult.

As academics, we can help students connect with each other and create social communities. This can be easily done by providing online spaces for students to freely talk about their experiences in an informal way or offering a virtual tour of campus. These should be offered considering different time zones and activities like online competitions such as creative writing, short-film making or academic puzzles can enable students to feel more engaged with the university as well.

We also suggest taking on students as partners and actively including them in study design. This would give them a sense of empowerment towards their learning journey. Furthermore, we can make space for students to create and deliver messages of togetherness, empathy and kinship. Encouraging students to develop artefacts – visual and text-based, in different languages, rooted in different cultures, would foster a vibrant, diverse, and well-connected online student community.

We need to strengthen and facilitate peer-to-peer communication and cross-networking among students. This is important to restore the social aspect of university life which are missing in this disrupted form of educational delivery. We have to accept that travel restrictions and unexpected lockdowns are the ‘new normal’. We cannot move forward and sustain without creating new ways of listening, including, and accessibility.

Dr Nira Rahman and Dr Wajeehah Aayeshah are academics in arts teaching innovation at the University of Melbourne.

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