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“Blended learning” brings technical difficulties at start of new academic term

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Students begin new academic term with a blend of on-site and online learning
Zoom bombers, server crashes and unfamiliar software have given students difficulties in the first weeks of "blended learning"

By Sam Portillo | News Editor

The restrictions around group gatherings and social distancing have seen universities resort to “blended learning”, a system reliant on online technologies to make course content available to students at home. In the first two weeks of the academic term, however, students across Wales have reported various problems with the system.

Such difficulties come after the University and Colleges Union suggested that face-to-face teaching should be suspended altogether until 2021.

On 5th October, video-sharing platform Panopto – popular among educational institutions, including Cardiff University – faced a Europe-wide outage, meaning thousands of students could not access their lecture recordings on what was supposed to be the first day of the term. 

Lecturers have been advised to reduce the duration of their recordings due to concerns that students would find it difficult to focus for prolonged periods of time at home. For this reason, and also technical limitations around uploading videos to the platform, they have also been advised to separate lectures into two or three shorter “chunks”.

Cardiff University will attempt to accommodate some number of seminars on-site, with students having to attend the remainder via live webinars at home. The teaching staff who are responsible for running these online sessions must also adapt to a new way of learning, facing unforeseen technical difficulties along the way. Inevitably, students, lecturers and webinar leaders will sometimes be prevented from taking part due to faulty Internet connections or devices. 

Many international students have chosen not to return to the UK for the new academic year in light of travel restrictions and concerns about the incidence of coronavirus. As such, they will complete their course modules entirely online.

Much of the university experience beyond the academic course has also been relocated online. Society “socials”, tutor groups and student mentor meetings take place on Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, as do meetings for the student media outlets. Journalism undergraduate Daisy reports experiencing problems during a talk with the CUTV group: “our call was interrupted by ‘Zoom bombers’ who spammed the chat with racial slurs, changed their backgrounds and icons to offensive images and continuously interrupted my colleagues and changed their backgrounds and icons to offensive images.”

Owen, who studies French and Italian at Swansea University, is yet to experience problems with the delivery of content online. “Most of the issues I’ve had with online learning have been to do with the Internet connection in my house and possibly the quality of my laptop.”

Over time, students and staff will not only become more accustomed to the necessary software but also more familiar with the system of blended learning itself, experiencing less confusion as a result. Solutions should also present themselves to deal with obstacles such as “Zoom bombers” and server crashes, providing altogether a smoother and more reliable experience. The technological difficulties faced in the initial weeks, however, remind us of the perennial truth that no technician or website designer can fix: machines can always break. 

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