The View From Home: How students at Fenner have experienced study without campus

According to two ANU Fenner School students working from overseas, it takes three things to survive teaching and learning from lockdown: a good internet connection, a foundational motivation to study, and opportunities to connect as students, teachers, and humans inside the ANU community, but outside the classroom.

On March 19th 2020 Australia closed its borders to a majority of overseas arrivals, including returning and commencing university students. For the last year and a half, Australian National University colleges, and Australian news outlets, have covered stories about international students: ANU Honorary Lecturer Angela Lehmann outlinined the three most important things Australian universities need to do to enhance International returning student experience. This year ANU College of Law covered the highs and lows of online study for their International cohorts; offering experiences of, and tools for, the impacts that COVID continues to have on student studies and wellbeing. So how are students at The Fenner School faring? 

Earlier this year The Fenner School hosted a Zoom hang out for remote and overseas students. Afterwards, we invited two attendees - Singapore-based Honours student and tutor Sumithri Venketasubramanian, and India-based Master of Environment student Padmapriya Muralidharan - to reflect on how they’ve managed during COVID, and why they persisted with studies at The Fenner School.

Padmapriya Muralidharan Master in Environment, in her second semester. Padmapriya knew she would have to study remotely, but didn’t expect it to go on for so long.

“COVID has hit India hard. It has touched everyone in some way – loss of livelihood, loss of life or loss of a way of life. Almost everyone in my community has had to deal with the death of loved ones. The social isolation has made coping with our losses harder, with all our support systems suspended. My son hasn’t gone to school since March 2020. There are online classes but at the age when school, friends and fun are what life is about, being home-bound has been hard on him. And I think this is true of all Indian children. I also know that this collective tragedy is making us question what we took for granted. Many people are making radical changes in their lives.” She explains.

For Padmapriya, that radical change included moving to Goa, and considering a complete shift in career.

“Goa is famous for its beaches, forests, sea food, old Portugese architecture and the spirit of susegad (a very chilled, laid back approach to life). Living here, in a small village that is stunningly beautiful, with more greenery than the eye can discern, waking up to birdcalls, seeing snakes in the garden, reconnecting to a simpler life has been inspiring. It seems the perfect place to study the environment. Interestingly, Goa is also known for its citizens movements, especially in the realm of environmental protection. People who know their land (or waters) intimately and value it greatly inspire me.”

But the decision to explore a career-shift came from seeing her childhood environments suffer at the hands of climate change and pollution, and worrying about the world her 11 year old child, and his children, stand to inherit.

“I grew up in Chennai (erstwhile Madras), a coastal city in South India. In 2019, Chennai hit Day Zero, when the city’s water reservoirs had dried up. This was a far cry from the Chennai of my childhood – a place where water was sufficient, if not plentiful. Today the city’s beaches are polluted and its wetlands built over. Sadly, Chennai is not an isolated case. India’s cities, rivers, and the very air we breathe are all severely polluted.”

On doing some research, Padmapriya discovered grassroots, citizen-led conservation movements that are seeing success in Indian cities, and she became part of them. This participation is what made her decide to come back to study, and pursue environmental conservation after working in advertising for 15 years.

“I’ve been involved with grassroots-level conservation programs in Bangalore, India where I lived. When considering program options for study, I was looking for ones that offered the flexibility to build on what I’d learned so far in my working years as well as giving a solid grounding in aspects pertaining to the environment. I chose the Master of Environment program at the Fenner School because it offered this flexibility as well as its reputation and that of the ANU.”

At the same time, studying remotely because of COVID has come at the cost of building a student community.

“What I miss most is forming connections, making friends. I wish the Fenner school remote students could achieve this – this could be in the form of small social groups, study groups, book clubs.”

While Padmapriya is isolated in her studies, she isn’t alone in having an experience of online life that excludes opportunities for student connection. Recent former Honours student and tutor Sumithri Venketasubramanian completed a double degree (Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Environmental Studies* (Honours)) on campus at ANU and studied on campus for four years. For her Honours project, Sumithri completed an analysis of news coverage of the fish kills that happened near Menindee, NSW in the summer of 2018-19, from her family home in Singapore. When it came to studying her Honours year remotely overseas, she had a domestic experience to compare it to.

At first, Sumithri noticed that when Canberra was in lockdown in 2020, it felt as though all ANU students were going through the pandemic experience together. But as restrictions eased across Australia, she noticed that those who weren’t on campus were not included as fully in the university experience as those who were. Namely, while remote students were invited to on-campus events, Sumithri found that taking up the offer to participate remotely brought challenges she couldn’t control: she found herself straining to hear presenters at streamed events, and less planning was dedicated to catering to remote audiences. While this was discouraging, it wasn’t until the more-recent lockdown in the ACT, and the return of all on-campus students to online study, that Sumithri realised just how much she was missing the whole time because she was a remote member of the ANU community.

“Some of my best memories from university were field trips. It’s a whole different experience and I certainly hope that everyone who wishes to return to in-person classes and events has the chance to do that. But it’s also crucial to note that those who aren’t going to be on campus for the foreseeable future are an indispensable part of the university population, no less important to those who cross Sullivan’s Creek every day.” She explains.

“Uni is more than just going to lectures and tutorials; social events and other activities are an opportunity to get to know some amazing people with similar interests who we wouldn’t meet otherwise. For every opportunity or event on-campus folks get, Fenner and the ANU should consider what they can do to provide a similar experience to those off campus – because we certainly pay good money for it.”

Despite observing and encountering a fall-away in attention as a remote student, Sumithri believes in online environments as a place of possibility, where the university could open worlds and doors for students, researchers, and teachers.

  “Remote learning not only allows people to commence or continue their studies during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also opens up the opportunity to go to uni for people who would face barriers to attending in-person classes (e.g. geography, disability, carer responsibilities or other work). So it’s really important to not see remote learning as solely a temporary fix to keep semesters running until restrictions ease, but rather as an integral part of the university experience. We have an opportunity here to really make online learning a part of the programs at ANU.”

As a tutor for the first time, Sumithri implemented her experience as a remote student to develop simple and helpful ways to transform her remote teaching. Firstly, to tackle the social distance she noticed between the classroom, students and tutors, she decided to implement email reassurance and filter strategies.

“I made it a priority to stay on top of emails, and give students the assurance they needed that things are alright. I also found having a particular subject line that students are requested to use (e.g. “ENVS0000 essay question”) helped filter through the many emails coming into one’s inbox.”

She implemented a policy of flexibility and understanding in her teaching and classroom, because of her own experiences and principles in a remote learning environment.

“Each person has their own set of circumstances that may be affecting their studies, and it’s important to create an inclusive space in our tutorials. Things like poor WiFi connection or being in an environment where it may be difficult to find a quiet place to participate in video calls can impact a students’ participation in tutorials, but they shouldn’t be penalised for it in their tutorial participation mark. There’s often a way to make things work, and it’s our role as tutors to minimise the barriers students have in getting the most out of their courses, to the best of our ability.”

Sumithri also jumped on a video call for 15 minutes before and after each scheduled tutorial, so that there was space for any questions, concerns, or just to chat. She found that students used the time to share feedback on the class, ask additional questions about assignments, or for anything else they wanted to spend it on that week. 

“Most people are looking for social connection too – we can’t exactly walk between tutes together or sit around the classroom having casual conversations about the latest episode of Love Island (or whatever the kids are watching these days) – so hopefully doing little things like this makes a difference.”

In the meantime, while Sumithri remains in Singapore, she’s been taking advantage of the view from her family home: figuratively, and literally.

“I’ve been reading more books in the past year and a half than I did in the previous decade; it’s a big world out there. I’ve been enjoying the many wonderful people in my life here. And pretty views help too.”

The view from Sumithri's part of the world

For the rest of 2021, The Fenner School is running a monthly group meetup for all remote Fenner students. It doesn't matter if you're an Undergraduate, a Grad Cert, or persuing Postgrad studies, come and hang out for an hour sometime. You can find all the info and register to attend here.

*The Bachelor of Environmental Studies and the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (Sustainability) have been discontinued. These were combined to form the Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability, which began in 2017.