Raja Shah is a fourth year student in Biochemistry on his placement year at the University of Edinburgh and we’re interviewing him about what it has been like studying remotely with St. Andrews. Raja has had a very positive experience with online learning and tells us that the supervision he has received from his supervisors in the School of Biology has been excellent. He didn’t doubt for a second that St Andrews had (and still has) the capacity to carry out online teaching successfully and to our usual high standards. Indeed, he thinks that all the resources that the University has put online since the pandemic broke out should be made available permanently. While he does occasionally miss face-to-face interaction, he thinks that our new way of doing things makes life a lot easier for our less physically able students who may not be able to attend university in person and he thinks that knowledge of how to use online resources makes students more employable. The only major change has been to his study space. When the labs were all closed, and the libraries all shut, Raja had to adjust to working on his bed in his bedroom. But he did tell us that given the extraordinary context we were in, things could have been worse, and the only main challenge he faced was not falling asleep while working!
Could you tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews?
I am currently in my fourth year at the University of St. Andrews studying the integrated Masters in Biochemistry. I am on a placement at Professor Michael Walkinshaw’s lab at the University of Edinburgh. I’m working on a dissertation on glycolysis in the cell.
How much had you integrated the use of technology into your study habits before the Covid-19 outbreak? What did you use until now?
I think I used technology a fair bit before COVID-19. Most of my coursework throughout my university life was done on the computer using Microsoft Office. When completing my coursework I used online journal articles a lot. I could find and read most of them online quite easily. Some work also needed access to certain specialty websites such as the BRENDA database or ExPASy. We were also taught how to use specific software like PyMOL, R, and SigmaPlot, and we used these programmes quite regularly throughout our work. In fact, we had a whole module dedicated mostly to teaching us R. Another module had a heavy bioinformatics workload where we had to run sequence alignments using the BLAST alignment tool.
What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching, learning, and study was moving online?
I was not surprised. The pandemic made it a necessary step and I had heard that most universities were already moving their teaching to an online platform. I didn’t have any concerns. I thought that St Andrews clearly had (and still has) the capability to carry out online teaching successfully. I actually think that this should have been done years ago to make things easier for our less able students who may not be able to attend university in person. I think all of the online resources we now have should still be made available after the pandemic.
How do you manage the process of learning and studying online?
I managed quite well to be honest; it was not a very difficult change. My St.Andrews coursework during my year away in Edinburgh is conducted online anyway. There was no change on the lecture-front this year, since we had no lectures; the only true online learning we have done was online tutorials and all of these went smoothly. Lab work was all done on site here in Edinburgh, and coursework for St Andrews was uploaded on MMS as usual.
From time to time, I have missed face-to-face at St Andrews: I think there is a sort of personal element lost when speaking to someone online. However, at the end of the day, it isn’t so detrimental, and you just learn to get used to it.
Did the process of moving online make you think differently about the way you approach your study? Did you make any changes to your study habits?
Not really, to both those questions. The way I study hasn’t changed a lot as even previously most of my work was done online – it was a minimal, if any, change for me. This year for me was very much lab based and again, we had no lectures and tutorials were all done online.
I would like to mention that my study space has been quite different. When I was working at St Andrews and the Library was open, I would usually spend hours there doing my coursework on the computer or studying my written lecture notes. However, since I am away in Edinburgh, before the pandemic I would usually work in the lab office because I had access to a desk which my house does not have. Since the labs closed, and the University of Edinburgh libraries are still all shut, I had to get used to working on my bed in my bedroom, which has been quite a change to working in the library. The main challenge is trying not to fall asleep!
In general, how has your student experience of learning and studying online been?
It has been really good, including before the pandemic broke out. We had good teachers showing us how to use the specific software or databases I mentioned above, and any issues were easily resolved. We had online quizzes for the Chemistry modules I took in first year and these only enhanced our learning. Online tutorials this year ran well too, and I think the School of Biology has done an excellent job of making sure that placement students get all the resources we need despite not being on site. In fact, the School has done a great job of teaching and supporting us in using online resources over all of the years that I have attended St Andrews. As time goes by, I’m realising just how beneficial this is proving to be since more and more workplaces are increasingly using special online programmes to carry out certain experiments and analyses. Knowledge of how to use online resources therefore makes you more employable.
How has your experience of lectures, seminars, and tutorials (if you have them) been?
They have been great. I haven’t encountered any issues personally with my online tutorials. Supervision has been excellent and we use Teams and email to stay in touch regularly.
You are an undergraduate at the School of Biology. Which technologies or online resources have you found especially practically useful for studying Biology and Biochemistry in particular?
Statistics software R and SigmaPlot have made it easy for me to carry out statistics and enzyme kinetics work throughout my years studying Biochemistry. The BRENDA database is very helpful in learning about your protein or enzyme of interest and I use it a lot. Also, I took advantage of YouTube quite a bit in university: there are a lot of videos of people explaining concepts to you that you may not have understood before and some of them are great.
What has been your experience of having undergraduate supervision online been?
It has been a good experience. My supervisors have been great at being available via email or Microsoft Teams, and I can easily contact them whenever I want if I have a query or issue.
What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own student experience of learning and studying online?
Make sure to take frequent breaks in between studying as all those hours spent looking at the screen can give you eye strain and headaches as it has done me!
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
No, that’s all. Thank you.