Distance Learning During COVID-19: My Experience as a Student

In this post I reflect on a recent situation as a student rather than an educator. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, organisations and institutions are shifting to online learning. In this post I share some recent issues I’ve experienced as a result of face-to-face classes moving online.

I don’t want to use this post to name and shame anyone, so I’m going to try to keep things generic where possible. In the last couple of years I’ve participated in various learning experiences. Some have been face-to-face workshops and some have been blended or remote experiences.

I really enjoy distance and blended learning experiences. I like being given materials to read and absorb, followed up with an in-person class or a virtual meeting. During the COVID-19 lockdown some of the face-to-face classes I was meant to participate in were moved online. I know a lot of people are trying their best to adapt to the situation, so this isn’t a rant or a complaint, more a reflection of what I liked and didn’t like as a student.

The use of Video

It seemed like the entire world was accessing the internet in March! I had to watch some asynchronous videos for a class I was taking. One of the videos was 2 hours long! The streaming service hosting the video was very slow. Some students also weren’t aware that you could lower the quality of the stream – rather than struggle along at 1080p. A lot of technical complaints were raised which could have been solved by providing more information on using the services.

What could have been done better?

It would have been better to cut this video up into chunks. At least if the service was slow I could come back to it at another time. The service the video was hosted on didn’t keep my place, so when I navigated away from the page I couldn’t remember where I was.

A downside to lowering video quality of a streamed video is that any slides or imagery shown in that video become hard to read at a lower quality. A workaround could have been to make the slides available for download.

Social Interaction

Not having a face-to-face class meant that our social interaction was moved online. We had a couple of Moodle chats and some Zoom calls. The problem with the Moodle chats is when you have 15 people all asking the same question in the same chat, you can’t keep up with what’s going on.

A different problem occurred in zoom – everyone was quite shy and no one wanted to participate. When a question was asked, 5 students would then unmute themselves and begin to talk at once. In another call, the host had enabled automatic subtitles, the talk was about accessibility so they wanted to demonstrate how to make live videos more accessible. However the subtitles were so annoying, they got in the way of the content and I felt like I was constantly reading them rather than concentrating what was being talked about. The subtitles were also pretty poor, half the time the words being said were incorrectly identified.

What could have been done better?

The chat feature was pretty useless. I would have scrapped this and asked the students to post questions into the forums.

In regard to the zoom calls, using something as simple as the “hands-up” feature can mean the host can control the room, know exactly who has questions and can answer each one at a time.

In regard to live subtitles, this might be more of a technical issue relating to the product. This is definitely something all participants should be able to control, turning them on or off when needed.

Planning and Organisation

When you go to a face-to-face conference or a class, there is usually a process that happens before the class begins. Something like:

  1. You usually arrive at the building/centre/university/hotel etc
  2. You might check-in with reception
  3. You follow directions to the classroom (if its your first time there)
  4. You might say hi to the teacher or other class members then take a seat.
  5. Some ground rules might be covered e.g. use of mobiles, the format of the class e.g. is this a lecture or will you be put into groups? You might be asked to get out a notebook and take notes (as face-to-face classes are not recorded!)
  6. Before the class starts maybe there will be a small ice breaker

The shift in moving a series of classes or talks online has meant that this process is often skipped. I participated in an event which was run over 8 hours of my day, totally online. Each talk was given by a different staff member. I didn’t always know what zoom link to click on next, I didn’t always know what time to join or what the expectation/outcome of the class would be.

What could have been done better?

Organise an online event like you would any other face-to-face event. Send out an up to date agenda and include (where possible) all the links that people need to access and what time to access them. Include information on what they should do if something goes wrong or who to contact. This isn’t always possible (or needed!) if you’re doing a 30 minute talk, but it’s definately needed if you’re running a series of workshops throughout the day.

Ice breakers are good to get groups talking to each other, this isn’t always possible if you’re talking to a group of 30, but even something like like “Spent 5 minutes writing your name on a piece of paper then show it to your webcam” just to get people engaged in the process.

PLAN BREAKS! This is really important. Just because students are at home sitting and watching on their computer screens doesn’t meant they don’t need breaks. If anything, more screen breaks are required. It doesn’t need to be long, 5 minutes to get a glass of water, to look at something other than a monitor, have a comfort break or just have a stretch. I’ve participated in so many online events where breaks weren’t even considered. A tired, thirsty student is not an engaged student.

Encourage students to take notes and not just rely on recordings and slides being shared. This will help with knowledge retention.


I feel like I would have had a better learning experience if my classes had gone ahead in person (although obviously they couldn’t have). But if I was given the choice between the two, I probably would have picked the face-to-face experience. However, as there was such as massive rush to move everything online, I believe that these online events will only improve and get better.

I just want to reiterate that I am grateful for all the effort that establishments are making into moving content online. It is a strange and crazy time for everyone and a lot of people have had to change their working arrangements to accommodate this new way of working.

As mentioned above, this post is more a reflection on my experience with an analysis of what could have been done to make the online experience as valuable as a face-to-face experience.

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