The return to normalcy: Face to Face classes meet mixed reactions from students

The 2021 fall semester, which commenced on September 1st marks a complete transition to face to face learning for public universities in Hong Kong. After more than a year of online-only classes and hybrid learning, the decision came as a welcome relief to many students.

For the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the transition was announced via email in May 2021. Vice President and Pro-Vice Chancellor Ian Holliday emphasized the importance of returning to “an immersive campus experience that defines a student’s journey.”

After more than a year, students once again formed long queues at MTR exits, pushed past each other to rush to their classes and stepped into overflowing canteens to grab a quick bite after long lectures. 

Students line up at Subway at the University of Hong Kong. (Photo: Ananta Agarwal)

The direct engagement with professors, immersive class discussions and the social interaction facilitated by face to face learning has been beneficial for many students, especially those who have practical courses. However, not every student has adjusted to the transition. The return to normalcy has, for some students, brought back concentration and learning issues they have long struggled with. 

Face to Face classes a necessity for students with practical courses

For Gauri Mahendru, a final year International Business and Global Management (IBGM) student at HKU, the transition meant a marked improvement in her learning experience and, thus, her grades. 

“Many of my courses are mathematical”, she said. “So I prefer to be able to ask questions on the spot. With online learning, I found that I needed to self-study more than usual, which was difficult.”

“The social interaction that comes with face to face learning also makes it much easier for me to cope”, she added.  

Simran Vasnavi, a final year International Journalism student at Baptist University, had a similar experience. Her journalism courses were difficult to conduct online, due to the courses’ reliance on involve audio and video-production, extensive group work and field reporting. Over the past year, learning became especially difficult for her.

Not being able to go out and report on certain stories because of COVID-19 restrictions made her feel like she was “missing out on opportunities as a journalism student.”

“For a while, I also worried a lot more about my job prospects. I definitely feel like my mental health is much better now that things are slowly returning to normalcy.”

Final year students return to HKU donning masks under the university’s mask mandate. (Photo: Ananta Agarwal)

However, not every student feels the change. However, not every student has adjusted to the transition. For some students, the return to normalcy has brought back concentration and learning issues they have long struggled with. 

The return to normalcy brings back learning difficulties

For some, having access to recorded lectures meant that they could study at their own pace, instead of moving with their professor’s. They could rewind and rewatch if they had trouble understanding a concept. Most importantly, they could revisit the teachings before the dreaded exams. 

The teaching faculty of HKU recognized the benefit of this element in online learning and incorporated it after the transition. 

Many students have told us how productive it is to engage with archived lectures at their own pace, and how helpful it is to return to lectures delivered earlier in the semester”, Professor Holliday wrote in his May, 2021 email. 

But not every University has kept this modification. 

Shrivatsa Agarwal, a final year computer science student at City University of Hong Kong, has always struggled with attention issues. 

“For as long as I can remember, I have had trouble concentrating during lectures, in big groups of people, with noise and distraction”, he said.

“With online learning, all of a sudden, I could finally move at my own pace. I could view the recordings as many times as I needed and studying became easier.  But now that’s gone.”

Jui Bose, another final year Politics student at City University, has always found it difficult to speak up during class discussions.

“I am very shy”, she said. “Attending classes alone, on my laptop, I found it easier to contribute to class discussions.”

“Discussions are a huge part of assessment in my courses”, she adds. “My grades definitely improved.”

HKU students can finally engage in face-to-face discussions during class again. (Photo: Ananta Agarwal)

Many international students have not been able to return to Hong Kong

Meanwhile, some international students are still stuck in their home countries due to the travel restrictions in Hong Kong and the long and expensive quarantine. For them, the complete transition to face to face learning presents an entirely new set of difficulties. 

“It will not be possible for students to complete their S1 courses purely online”,  Professor Holliday had written in the same email sent out to HKU students. 

Shruti Agarwal, a second year Sociology and Political Science student at HKU, is still attending classes from India. In a phone call, she said that teaching methods vary from course to course. For her sociology classes, face to face and online tutorials are held simultaneously, while for her politics classes they are held separately. This difference becomes even more problematic, since tutorial attendance is considered even more important than lecture attendance.

“This makes it very difficult for tutors who have a busy schedule to coordinate separate online classes”, she added. “For two of my Politics courses, the timings change every week and it is very difficult to get everyone’s schedules lined up.”

Even then the tutorials are not helpful. Since only a handful of students are still learning online, the quality of class discussions is no longer the same.

“Learning is not organic anymore. It’s difficult to not feel like you’re missing out”. she said. “I do feel that they should have continued with hybrid learning this semester.”

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