What’s it like to embark on university studies remotely?

The current autumn is something new to the entire University community. Due to the coronavirus situation, teaching has been transitioned online, and studies can be completed remotely. The number of student events has been reduced, while strict safety restrictions must be observed. Here, students of the Faculty of Science talk about what it is like to be a new student this autumn.

As always, new students began their university studies by attending orientation week, during which they familiarise themselves with, among other things, the buildings on the campus and the systems associated with registering for courses. The students are divided into small groups guided by tutors. The Faculty of Science welcomed 750 new students, which made it necessary to carefully schedule group activities on Kumpula Campus.

“We spent the orientation week in a tutor group of less than 10 people. I met other first-year students of the degree programme during a picnic in the park,” says Oskari Manneros, who started studying in the Bachelor's Programme for Teachers of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.

Oskari Manneros

Oskari Manneros moved from Rauma to Helsinki to become a teacher of mathematics and chemistry.

Getting to know the campus and fellow students during orientation week

During orientation week, first-year students also get to know each other and senior students of their discipline. In a normal autumn, first-year students may make more than a hundred new acquaintances during the week, as new and old students come face to face with each other. This year, there are many fewer encounters in person than before.

“Getting to know senior students is also a part of familiarising yourself with university life. The campus and student facilities have served as important meeting points for old and new students. This year, no gatherings are permitted indoors, and it has been necessary to restrict the number of participants even in events held outdoors,” says Eetu Halme, chair of Matrix, the association of mathematics students at the University of Helsinki.

Oskari Manneros has noticed that meeting new people under the current safety restrictions is not that easy.

“Meeting people is difficult, but I’m familiar with some students in my degree programme to begin with. Now that the courses have begun, I’ve been talking to acquaintances on my courses. We have a Telegram messenger group going on with a couple of friends,” Manneros says.

Help for calculation exercises and guidance via chat rooms

Manneros relocated from Rauma to Helsinki to study. In practice, he could have begun studying to become a mathematics and chemistry teacher entirely remotely this autumn. Due to the differences between disciplines, practices may vary between faculties and degree programmes.

“All of my lectures are online. One course offers the opportunity for contact teaching, but I didn’t opt for that. It's good that I don’t have to spend time on travel when I have just a single lecture on a given day. Then again, it’s better to do calculation exercises together with others. We’ve visited the campus for that with a few friends,” Manneros says.

In normal circumstances, students of mathematics complete the calculation exercises included in courses together in the Solvery facility at Kumpula Campus. Assistance can be asked from tutors present at certain times at the facility. This autumn, Solvery tutoring is implemented online.

“Online guidance is available through a range of channels. You can visit Zoom for a chat, or ask for help using Moodle forums or Telegram. It's difficult to write mathematical symbols quickly with a keyboard, but you can post images on Moodle and Telegram,” Eetu Halme says.

“I hope students will actively adopt the online Solvery to discuss and solve exercises together, helping one another.”

Student dinner parties and game nights online

During an online lecture, you are left wondering what the other participants look like if they don’t have their cameras on. Manneros, who is pursuing a career as a teacher, wonders whether human contact is missing from remote teaching.

“I’ve heard that people are not as eager to ask questions on online lectures as they are on regular lectures held at the University. It’s good to have the chance to comment via chat on Zoom lectures for a hundred people, but teachers may not necessarily notice comments posted during their lectures,” says Manneros.

The organisation of extracurricular events online has vexed members of student associations, even though compensatory means of organisation have been thought up. The Student Union of the University of Helsinki has decided to hold all of its events remotely, and it is not renting its banquet facilities to the associations, some of which are holding their events outdoors in the autumn.

“In the early spring, there might have been a modicum of enthusiasm for new things, but as the circumstances prevailed, that enthusiasm waned. It’s been necessary to rethink traditions and customs. It’s been really tough,” Halme says.

Matrix has a virtual student room in the Discord messaging application, and the association has held game and movie nights online. A dinner party organised remotely in Zoom was also a success – even though Halme says a singalong by 40 people did not sound as good via the web as it would have on site.

“However, online rooms are no substitute for lounging on a sofa and going to parties. Earlier, many students have met others on campus, even if they are not otherwise in daily contact. It’s easy just to enter the student room and hang out, without anything particular to do,” Halme muses.

Uncertain circumstances require specific guidelines

Students of international master’s programmes have asked the degree programmes questions about the possibility of beginning their studies if they have not yet been able to come to Finland.

“It is possible. It’s also been possible to complete orientation week entirely online," says Erica Runolinna, education planning officer for the Master’s Programme in Mathematics and Statistics.

According to Runolinna, bachelor’s students have not asked any more questions than before. This year, communication on study-related arrangements has been intensified, and students understand the uncertainty associated with the circumstances. The beginning of studies in the coronavirus autumn has not presented any substantial surprises to first-year student Oskari Manneros either.

“At this point, everything is new and surprising, but the flow of information has been sufficient. It was explained to us that if you can’t find information on something and the tutors don’t have the information either, it’s probably something you don’t even have to know as yet.”

Neither has Manneros been pining for student events.

“After a break in studying, you have to find your studying rhythm again. A huge amount of parties would certainly not be helpful in that.”

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Bachelor's programme in Science