Students living in the Algarve forced to abandon studies at universities in the United Kingdom because of the coronavirus emergency are working hard to achieve their degrees on time with the help of modern technology.
There was a sudden rush to get back home when all universities, colleges and schools in the UK closed and airlines began cancelling flights.
Mariota and Catriona Anderson returned on an almost empty plane and spent their first two weeks self-isolated in part of their family home, near Ferragudo, separated from their parents.
They are focused in an unprecedented way on completing Masters degrees started last September.
Mariota is working on an MSc in International Public Policy with University College London (UCL). Her twin sister, Catriona, has been attending the London School of Economics (LSE) for an MSc in International Social and Public Policy.
They received emails from their universities announcing closure for the rest of the academic year and that teaching would have to move online.
“The whole process of moving classes and digital teaching has been very surreal,” they say.
Everyone is able to communicate as if it was a virtual seminar – provided there are no wifi problems.
“What has been lost is the experience of physically attending university and everything that comes with that, such as attending seminars and public lectures,” they say.
“Not being in an actual seminar or lecture where you can talk without internet cutting out and other technical difficulties has been challenging.”
With students now spread across the world, time differences and internet connections have been difficult to manage.
Catriona has been attending LSE seminars through an online platform called Zoom, which is like Skype.
“It allows students to communicate as if it was a virtual seminar. It is obviously very different from being in a lecture in person which is a lot more motivating and social,” she says.
At UCL, seminars have taken the form of an online forum where students send in questions and the seminar leader answers them.
“I only had two weeks left of teaching as UCL was on strike for four weeks since February 20. Teaching was supposed to resume the week after they announced that the university was going to close. So, I’ve really not been taught for my second semester, which is really disappointing.”
Trying to concentrate on studying and writing essays amidst the constant wave of anxiety-inducing news updates about the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly challenging, say the Anderson sisters.
The good news is that Mariota and Catriona have been assured that their exams will be moved online so it will be possible to obtain Masters degrees from home.
Dissertations will be complicated to complete at home as students won’t have access to libraries and archives, which have also closed.
Exams have been moved online too, but the twins have each been assured that, despite all this moving online for an indefinite period, they can still look forward to obtaining their Masters degrees from home.
Back in the Algarve while in the third year of a four-year integrated Masters course in Engineering Science at Oxford University, Martha Fitzpatrick is also struggling at home.
“While it is lovely being back with my family, the environment is not as conducive to study in,” she says.
“At university, I always work in libraries or public spaces, working alongside other students, which is what keeps me focused. Working from home, I feel very unmotivated and prone to procrastination.”
Martha, who lives near Porches, says she is finding it hard to find a way to revise as she has not yet been told how she will be assessed as the conventional written papers are unlikely to happen this year.
“On speaking to friends from university, it is clear most people are struggling with this.”
Along with the rest of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it is not known when Oxford University will reopen.
“They have indicated that it is likely we will only return for the start of the next new academic year, which will be October 2020. However, they have not officially announced that students will not be able to return for next term. They have only said it is most likely all teaching will be done remotely if we choose to return.”
Martha and her fellow students have been told that they can obtain their degrees without returning to Oxford. They will only have to return at some stage in the future to attend a graduation ceremony and officially leave the university.
By LEN PORT
Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: algarvenewswatch.blogspot.pt