What do they have to say about education during the pandemic?
Enjoy the opening interview from a new Bennett video series—hearing from kids around the world about how the pandemic has affected their education and lives as students. They were eager to speak about their experiences of the last year and we appreciated hearing their perspectives. Indeed, we enjoyed our conversations with them immensely and, as always, we're impressed by their thoughtfulness and candor. We hope you enjoy them too.
First up— Carlos from Spain!
(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Elizabeth: Well, hello, Carlos, and thank you for spending time with me today. Just to start, could you tell me just a little bit about yourself?
Carlos: Sure! So, I'm Carlos. I'm 18 years old and in my first year of University. I'm currently based in London, but I'm originally from Spain.
Elizabeth: Thank you! Take us back to when the pandemic started you - would have been in your final year of secondary school in Spain, right? What happened for you at that point? What did your school do?
Carlos: Well, actually, it came at the worst possible moment, because I was just finishing my mock exams for my A-levels, so I wasn't really too focused on the situation that was going on; I was just revising. So it took a few weeks for me to actually know what was going on and to internalize all the changes that were happening. But, in terms of the school schedule, nothing had changed. I had the same classes, at the same times. What changed was how the schedule was completed. So, for example, instead of going to school to have my classes, I just did them in my room through a Zoom call. And instead of having lunch in school, I just had a sandwich in my room. What changed was just how my classes were done and how I spent my school time in my house, pretty much.
Elizabeth: So basically, there are two pieces - the academic piece, and the social piece. From the academic standpoint, you were revising for your A-levels. Am I correct in thinking that the A-levels were canceled?
Carlos: Yeah, they were.
Elizabeth: What did that mean for you as a student applying to university, in another country?
Carlos: Well, I think the main thing for me was the uncertainty that this caused, because obviously, the A-levels are the token, or the credit you get, that universities look at when they're deciding whether to admit you or not. So, in this sense, the fact that they were canceled meant that universities now did not have this token to assess students and see who they wanted and who they didn't.
So, with the cancelation, it meant that I was uncertain about whether universities would now reject me because I didn't have exam results, or how they would assess me - maybe their new assessment criteria would not be for something I was particularly strong in. So yeah, for me and my friends, it was just very nervous times, because we just didn't know how we would have been accepted into a university.
Elizabeth: Right, so all those years you've been preparing in a certain way, and then suddenly somebody moves the goalposts, and you don't know if this is going to work to your advantage or disadvantage. How do you think it turned out for you? You're in university in England. Did it feel like you, in the end, achieved what you would have achieved if you'd completed your A-levels?
Carlos: Well, in my friend group, I'm an extraordinary case because it didn't affect me at all. I was lucky in that way because what universities did was, instead of using exam results, they evaluated us throughout the two years we did the course. So for example, we did internal exams in the schools, and the teachers used that to create a predicted grade. And since my internal exams were pretty good, I actually got the same predicted grades that I was predicted at the start of the year. So yeah, I got the grades that I was expecting, and I was able to fulfill the entrance requirements for my university, and now I'm in London!
Elizabeth: So, you're one of those examples where if you're a steady student who's working well for two years, you were lucky! If you were one of those students who figured, "I'll just study really hard for two months before the A-levels," then maybe not so lucky, right?
Carlos: That was the problem. Because generally, the approach we students have is just, we try to make it work at the last minute. So, a lot of people were [negatively] affected by it.
Elizabeth: What about socially? It was your last year of secondary school. I imagine that there were social events and traditions that are part of the end of school that most kids look forward to. What happened to that part of your life?
Carlos: Well, I think that was the part that was most affected because obviously, with everything being transferred to being virtual, we didn't have the usual conversations you had in the school corridors, or even when you had a break and you could just play with a ball, or just the usual conversations you have - just the gossip that characterizes schools.
Also, being the final year, you have these graduation traditions, which couldn't take place because of the restrictions. So that was a shame, because when you grow up seeing the older students having these privileges and celebrations, you always think, "one day that's going to be me." We didn't have that, which was a shame. The plan was for everything to be rescheduled, but since the situation hasn't improved significantly, we still haven't had a graduation ceremony.
Elizabeth: And do you still miss it? Does it feel like ancient history now, or do you still feel like there's a piece you're lacking?
Carlos: Certainly, I think there's a door that wasn't closed. Like, my transition from school to university seems continuous - it just seems like this is another school year.
Elizabeth: Let's talk about going to university. So, you moved to another country and started a whole new chapter of your life in the middle of this. What has your university life looks like in terms of in-person or online instruction?
Carlos: Well, it's been really fluid because when I started, I had around three hours of face-to-face tutorials and seminars, obviously wearing masks and being two meters apart. But then, around November, the situation changed, because England was experiencing a second wave. So, all classes were suspended and they were moved online. Since then, I haven't returned to a face-to-face class.
Elizabeth: And what are you studying, Carlos? What's your field?
Carlos: I'm studying History, Politics, and Economics, Joint-Honors degree.
Elizabeth: Good for you. So, what has that been like? Let's do the social piece first. Adjusting to a new country, a university, trying to create a friend group? You had two months of in-person classes before everything closed down. Have you been able to make friends and create a life for yourself?
Carlos: It's been extremely challenging because normally, you go to a class, you start talking to your course mates, and you organize a plan afterward. But now with the restrictions, even when I had in-person classes, I just couldn't do anything afterward. Also, in England, societies are quite a big thing. You join a society to meet like-minded people that have the same interests as you - but societies didn't run any in-person events this year. It was all online because the Student Union didn't allow this, due to the restrictions. So, in this sense, it was basically impossible to actually build a relationship with someone.
The only possibility for this is in the student halls, which is where I'm currently staying, because here you can actually interact with your neighbors - you share a kitchen and such, and can actually spend time together. So, the social part has been massively affected and it's basically reduced to the day-to-day interactions you have with your flatmates.
Elizabeth: Hopefully you have nice flatmates. Can you imagine if you had bad flatmates?
Carlos: Then I'd have no social life.
Elizabeth: In terms of the actual learning - so, now you're online, and you're probably quite used to it by now. Are there things about it that you like, that suit you, and what are the things that you don't like, or that have been hardest for you?
Carlos: I think some positive stuff has come out of this transformation of the education system. For me, the main one is the flexibility that it offers, because with everything being online, all activities are recorded. So, for example, in my case, all the lectures are recorded. And, this means that you can just watch these lectures or complete activities at a time that is most convenient for you. So, this option of just tailoring how you finish your tasks and your deadlines is pretty good, because sometimes, you might just feel that it would be better to watch a lecture later when you can concentrate harder. This aspect of flexibility has been very positive for me.
Also, the fact that there are more resources available online means that it's easier to learn, because sometimes in the classroom, the teacher has to hand out pieces of paper for you to learn, but if you're online, the teacher can just send you a couple of links and you can just read over them again at a time that's most suitable for you. So this increased access to research has also benefited me quite a lot.
Elizabeth: Do you have any courses that are "live", where you are with other students and it's maybe a little bit more conversational?
Carlos: Yes, in the English system you have lectures and tutorials. In tutorials, it's synchronous, so you have to actually attend, and you engage and interact with with your other coursemates. That's good because you can have tutorials, which you need to stick to your schedule for, but as for the lectures, you can just watch those at your convenience.
Elizabeth: I'm curious - when you're in tutorials, do you keep your camera on?
Carlos: It depends. I tend to keep my camera on because it really helps me with my concentration. Obviously, if you don't turn it on there's an incentive to just lie in bed and not focus. But, some teachers don't require this. So generally, when a teacher doesn't ask you to put your camera on, you don't.
Elizabeth: And maybe that's another question, but since we're there - this is a new thing, I think - the possibility of being invisible in your classroom, and what that means for you as a student. If you are multitasking, listening, but also doing something else on the computer, or folding your laundry, or you're lying in bed... so, I guess what I'm wondering is, do you find that that you've changed as a student or that you learn differently as a result of the "camera on/camera off" possibility?
Carlos: Yeah, totally. As you said, being invisible in a class has, of course, changed how I concentrate and how I listen to a teacher speak, because there's always this incentive to just read the newspaper as you're watching your lecture. What this has changed, for me, is listening to keywords and buzzwords. So, when I hear that the teacher is actually going through something that I find interesting, I switch on, in a way. But when he's just rambling about something that I don't particularly enjoy listening to, I just go on my phone and start scrolling through social media or whatever...
Elizabeth: So, in a way, you know, you could argue that it's making you a very efficient student that, you know - you're listening when you hear something you really want to listen to. I think, maybe for some kids, making them "multitasking students" is a good way of putting it, being able to split focus.
What are some of the things that have been hardest for you? Putting aside the social piece, which I think must be really tough. From an education standpoint, the academic piece - are there things you've missed being online?
Carlos: Well, following the conversation we just had about being invisible in a classroom - this option of just "switching off" is very hard for one's concentration because of course, you always go into a lecture to pay attention to everything, and actually understand what the teachers trying to convey. This option of just switching off and no one noticing... it's extremely hard to concentrate. And also, there's the fact that you're watching these lectures in your room when your bed is right beside you and your phone is just very close to your hand. There are so many temptations that obviously don't exist in a classroom, where you're sitting down, the teacher is watching you, where it would be disrespectful to just pick your phone up.
For me, the hardest thing has been the ability to concentrate in a [virtual] class - that's been the hardest. But I would also say that, because classes are online and virtual, it's hard to express yourself in a way, for example, through emails, when you don't understand something. So, let's say I don't understand a concept and I want to ask one of my teachers by trying to explain what my issue is through an email. I find this extremely hard, compared to just going to their classroom or their office and trying to come to a solution there.
Elizabeth: That's very interesting. It's true, because having been a teacher myself, I know that when a student wouldn't understand something, they usually couldn't tell me what they didn't understand.
Elizabeth: Because if they could say what they didn't understand, that was half of their learning it. So, it was my responsibility as a teacher to watch them, listen to them, and try to figure out what they weren't understanding and then maybe say, "I correct that this is what's confusing you?" And so, I can see the issue of not having that natural dialogue with a teacher, and trying to figure it out in an email. It's very interesting, what you're saying about how there's a certain kind of pressure when you're in public that forces you to concentrate. I mean, the worst thing that you can do in a classroom if you're not interested is, I don't know, look out the window! Whereas, if you're by yourself, you have endless possibilities. That's very interesting.
Any last comments or perspectives or thoughts that you would like to share with adults who are thinking about, writing about, and talking about what this has meant for the education of our kids?
Carlos: Well, first of all, I would like to say that there are a lot of changes that have happened in this in our education, and I think that the best way to have a perspective on this is to actually speak to us students - to see what we think about the new changes.
Also, for people that are my age and for whom it feels like a lost year... it was supposed to be The Best Year Of Our Lives! But honestly, I've still had a great time. I feel like I'm learning a lot as well.
So, I think the key for our students, and for anyone that is being affected by changes due to the pandemic, is to adapt - because obviously, the situations are not favorable and there have been a lot of changes, but I think just having the ability to adapt to what has been going on, just try to make the most of the virtual setting, is very important.
Elizabeth: Well, that's a very good spirit, and it at least you're all in it together, right?
Elizabeth: All right, a random question that I'm asking everybody. What's your favorite word? It can be any language.
Carlos: My favorite word... the English word, "overzealous". Yeah, that's I think that's it. Just, it sounds cool. Its meaning, as well - I think it's just an interesting word.
Elizabeth: Well, thank you for that! And, thank you again for taking the time to speak with me, and to share your thoughts, your experience, and your perspective, I really enjoyed it.
Carlos: Thank you for enabling me to just give my perspective, because I think it's important for people to know how the pandemic has affected students. Having this platform to just give my opinion is great.
Elizabeth: Well, good. Well, thank you, and hopefully, students will continue to have a voice - you know, this has evolved education, and as institutions decide what their policies are going to be... what will remain online? What will be in-person? How students will live? Hopefully, students will continue to have a voice in that.
*Recorded March 2021
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