The ongoing pandemic has perhaps forever changed the place of technology in our lives. For many of us, it’s now the only way we see our friends and family, do our jobs or ensure our kids are still educated. For some people, that was already the case. For many more, this is a luxury not even imagined. Having immersed myself in the design and realisation of an online English university course for over 300 students early on in lockdown, I’d like to reflect a little on how this new virtual environment compares and also, to really focus on some of the positives – we may many of us be really in need of those positives right now.
"So, in the face of all these things we may be restricted from doing, we might ask ourselves - what can we do?"
When I was a teenager my English teacher gave the class a reading list of classics. I’d literally only read one of the books so I began in earnest. One book on the list was E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I admit I wasn’t entirely enraptured by the storyline but the two words in the epigraph have remained in my mind since I first read them when I was just 17. They read: "Only connect..." This phrase holds a place in my heart and I think it’s what’s kept me partly sane throughout this whole debacle. We may not be able to hug or show our masked smiles on the street; we may not be able to revel in the anonymous abandon of a concert or nightclub; we may not be able to travel to see our loved ones or hold their hands when we get there; we may not have those moments of rest as our kids clamber on the parks, or that lazy day where we say, sod it, let’s eat out. All these simple things now come with risk. And yes, they may always have done, but this time it’s more palpable. For some of us, we’ve witnessed that it can be deadly. So, in the face of all these things we may be restricted from doing, we might ask ourselves - what can we do? And one of those things for me, and I think many of my friends and family also, has been simply to connect.
In the first weeks when the pandemic hit, I heard from friends I hadn’t heard from in ages. I sent messages to people I’d been meaning to contact but there was always those excuses of work, tiredness, tidying etc. For once, those excuses dispersed and nothing was more important than connecting. During lockdown I spoke to my parents literally every day on Facetime, probably more than I’ve spoken to them in my entire life! I found myself leaving voice messages, something I’d never done before but finding that a simple text message no longer felt sufficient. We organised Zoom calls as groups of friends across the world, all in our different time zones. I reinstated my weekly international meeting I used to do with students at my language school. I had phone calls with friends and family whilst I washed the dishes and connecting with others suddenly became a massive and main part of my every day. My kids even did daily activities with Nanna and Grandad and on the big computer screen, it was almost as if they were there with them in the front room, dancing together, singing together, colouring in together – but them in Manchester, England and us in Plaisance, Southwest France. In so many ways I’ve never felt further from them – we can no longer simply hop on a plane or a train and turn up at their house. But in many ways I’ve never felt closer. But I know, I hear you say, that is not the real human contact – staring at each other through a screen. And it’s true. It can’t replace the feeling of a hug, the kiss on the cheek, the closeness of being together in the same room or the atmosphere of a family dinner. Of course, it can’t replace those things. But, the technology can allow us to connect, and for that I’m so grateful. And I must also say that rather than isolating, as the phrase self-isolation suggests, I suddenly felt so connected to friends, family and the rest of the world. After all, in so many ways, we were all for once united by the very same thing.
"Suddenly, we saw who we really depended on."
Of course, there are many things that connect us all – our humanity for one, the climate crisis for another, but this virus for a short while saw people reaching beyond their usual boundaries, across race, across religion, across status, and connecting with one another. Neighbours spoke to neighbours they’d never spoken to before. Communities came together to help each other and actually noticed those around them who were struggling. This for me was the beauty of the ugly situation we were all in. Suddenly, we also saw who we really depended on – the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, the supermarket workers, the teachers, the postmen and women, the bin collectors…. Low-paid, sometimes marginalised people, sometimes of first or second generation immigrant backgrounds, who got up and risked their lives each day to save strangers. I was so moved by this overwhelming need to acknowledge what these people were doing that I wrote a poem and asked friends around the world to speak it with me. I’ve never shared my poetry but during Covid I did. I wanted to connect with those people and let them know they were appreciated and the embarrassment of appearing on screen paled into comparison with the need to say thank you. Sadly, the famous weekly clapping turned into something else and soon everyone moved back to their own wants and desires for holidays, leisure days, meals out and so on and life went somewhat back to normal – even though it’s far from being normal and the virus is still there. I have to be honest in saying that a part of me misses that feeling of hyperconnectedness from those initial days and the images of communities coming together. It was in so many ways so special and gave me hope during some of these difficult days.
This year my colleagues and I were tasked with translating our course for international students into an online course. I think it’s something most educators have had to face this year. We went at it with full energy, reading and researching first, following a model, doing our homework on the various kinds of activities and finding our way around the software. It took us day and night, weekends and all, but after 5 months we’d finally created quite a unique course. It was definitely far from perfect and in many ways a complete shot in the dark but it seems to have gone OK and in some ways, it’s gone more than OK. We’re seeing some students connect and interact in a way they may not usually do in the classroom. During my PhD research I got to sit in many different classes all over the university and bore witness to the frequent silence outside and inside the classrooms while everyone typed away on their phones, not looking at each other nor the teacher and more often than not, not saying a single word throughout an entire module. Now, we’re seeing first hand those interactions the students are typing away on their phones and they're typing them to their classmates, and they're showing each other respect, care, and compassion. They're enjoying joining in the calls with each other to complete activities – group work that usually they complain about. Perhaps this new environment suits this new generation so used to interacting on their devices and gives them courage to reach out to others in ways they wouldn’t normally do face to face. We’re seeing much more critical thinking and engagement with the concepts and ideas as well as students openly asking to be friends with each other, something that was shown to be a big fear amongst students when I did my research around the student experience several years ago. We hoped simply that they would connect – and they are – right across the globe, sitting in their own homes, without even stepping beyond their own front door, something else which in itself is quite incredible - and perhaps also the simple act that students most appreciate at this time.
The thing I thought I’d miss most doing the course this year online was the camaraderie of my colleagues. And it’s true, I feel I haven’t had the same kind of contact with the tutors as we’d normally have. But I have learnt more about them as people and heard and read stories about their lives that I wouldn’t normally have got to hear or see. With some, I might even say I've had more contact, and I've even got to know some new characters, and feel I really do know something about them. It doesn’t make up for missing their little visits to the office or huddling with them in the cold staff room for a moan about the weather or to warm up over a coffee… it’s less tangible, that’s for sure. But there are still some real elements of the connection there. With my co-ordinator colleagues, however, the connection has been so real and so constant. At the university, we usually have an office for the co-ordinators, those of us running the course and this space is a hub of activity, problem-solving, stress many days, sunshine and music on others, tears, philosophical questions and debates, frantic last minute preparations and most of all, lots of love and respect for each other to help us get through the job we have to do. This year, we co-ordinators are not in the office in Lancaster but instead in Greece, Germany, England and France. And yet, every day has felt to some extent like being in the office with the same stress, same tears, the last minute issues, the running between rooms (except this time teams or channels) and the same smiles and love to get us through each day. Laura and her Sherlock solutions. Javi and his unending willingness to help. Evelin with her dancing penguin and visible lightbulb moments. And each of us with our separate stereotypical European behaviours that make us giggle and which feel strangely familiar and comforting. It’s been l’auberge espagnole every day and honestly, it's been amazing. One day, we've promised, we'll meet on a beach somewhere, share a beer and celebrate what we've achieved this year - which for me, more than the course itself, is the friendship and bond we've forged even whilst separated by the seas. We’ve not physically shared the same space for the entirety of the process from researching to designing, creating and now implementing the course. And yet, we’ve done it. It’s quite incredible in a way. In the same way, the tutors and students are doing the same now and when I think of the resilience of everyone involved, doing all of this with all the crap going on in the background, with all the what-ifs and what-if-nots and all the where the hell will we be tomorrow and dare we think of tomorrow… it’s really quite an incredible feat to find us all connecting across the planet and doing what we can to learn, communicate, teach, share and just be humans together.
“Learning about how to interact across cultures and connecting internationally is something so important and helpful for us, and particularly now.”
In social meetings on the course, from my armchair in France I joined with students in Canada, India, Thailand, UAE, England and all over China to talk about travel and culture. At the end of one particular meeting, the conversation got quite emotional as we talked about the various reactions to coronavirus, the difference between east and west and their fears for what’s coming next. As a parent, I have to say for me the change in the children’s eyes at school is visible. They might not entirely have understood what’s happening but they know there is something and that bright innocence that shone in their eyes before lockdown just doesn’t seem so evident anymore. As I spoke to our students in all their respective countries, the same shadow in their eyes was visible. “I want to say thank you, Heléna,” one of the girls said. It was 1am where she was and she’d stayed up especially to have this opportunity to practise speaking and most importantly, use the opportunity to connect. I don’t remember her exact words but her next comment went something like this: “Learning about how to interact across cultures and connecting internationally is something so important and helpful for us, and particularly now.” Other faces in the Teams gallery smiled and nodded. The course had been focussing on the benefits and challenges of studying in an international university, a multicultural environment. I sensed the emotion in her words and the unknowing in the faces of the others – nothing is as sure as it was and nobody quite knows what they will face, particularly now, and particularly after the ugly politics unleashed during the pandemic. Having the opportunity to talk and to share these concerns was again something of a relief, a feeling of togetherness across the oceans, and an understanding and connection created right then and there across the internet. In that moment, all the hard work and stress of the previous 5 months had been worth it. It meant something to these students and in my mind, that meant mission complete.
Much like I may have felt reading Howard’s End, you may have been entirely underwhelmed by the main body of my post here but I hope that if you’re at least paying attention to the beginning and end that you will take away just those two little words that mean so much, perhaps now more than ever. Across all those kilometres, all those oceans, all those pointless lines in the land, and amidst a global pandemic affecting every man-made nation, we are managing to connect and if that’s all some of us manage on these uncertain days, I think that is already an achievement and the most important thing we can do.