Hands-on courses suffer online

10 June 2020

Written by: Rebecca Borg

With tertiary education now delivered online due to COVID-19, three students studying practical courses recount the difficulties that come with learning hands-on subjects virtually.

When schools, universities and TAFE courses moved their classes online from late March due to COVID-19, the idea of studying from home was a student’s dream – or at least for some. Alarms were no longer set for 6.30am, you could forget the fight for a carpark and rocking up to class in a hoodie and pyjamas was okay because who was going to see you anyway?

Fast forward 10 weeks. Your laptop is now your annoying best friend and the walls of your bedroom have found a way to move closer to you. Virtual study no longer seems like the grand idea it once was.

And what if your study requires more than just a laptop and comfortable study space?

For those studying practical, hands-on subjects, such as medicine, science and hospitality, their education has become significantly compromised.

Tayla Brereton is currently completing a Diploma of Beauty Therapy at Ellie Lukas Beauty Therapy College. What was supposed to be a one-year course is now indefinite, with students losing a crucial amount of classes and practical work time due to the college’s closure. They are now required to complete theory-based study as they work from home.

Beauty being a hands-on business, Brereton believes theory work won’t prepare her for a job in the real-world. Without access to the state-of-the-art salon facilities” Brereton was eager to utilise, students just like her are missing out on critical components that are vital to their studies.

“There’s only so much theory you can do and only so much reading you can do,” Brereton told upstart. “At the end of the day we need those machines and we need that practical study.”

Online study has been a huge inconvenience for final-year nursing student Chelsea Garlito. This year, she was expecting to do her placement, graduate from Victoria University and be on her way to a graduate program where she could gain nursing experience in a hospital environment.

With labs put on pause, Garlito is concerned about how prepared she’ll be when she goes on placement and graduates at the end of the year.

“They stopped doing any kind of lab work so we can’t practice, for example, our injections or blood transfusions,” she told upstart.

“[It] is really upsetting, because this year we were actually supposed to advance more in our lab skills in order to get better at placement and prepare us for that future time in the hospitals.”

Garlito is also struggling to find the motivation to study. Working in a home environment means there is more room for distractions with family, housework and even food finding a way to interrupt work and study.

“I really need to be switched on, but being in my own home, I feel like it’s just really hard to find any kind of motivation to sit down and listen to my teacher,” Garlito said.

“Whereas, if I were to go to uni physically, I’ve already built up that motivation. I have already made this whole journey here. I might as well make it worth it.”

And students aren’t the only ones impacted by the online transition. Many teachers have also had to make changes to their classes in this challenging time. Biochemistry and Genetics Lecturer at La Trobe University, Dr James Tsatsaronis, believes that the “lack of opportunity to gain practical experience” is one of the biggest frustrations for students in the online transition of practical subjects.

“The biggest challenge has been in trying to replace laboratory-based lessons with appropriate resources that are engaging, relevant and help to support some of the practical skills that are essential to our discipline,” Dr Tsatsaronis told upstart.

Despite the progress made by students in his class, Dr Tsatsaronis believes it’s very hard to assess how his students are coping overall.

“There are so many other factors outside of study that are making life more difficult at the moment,” he said.

“Social distancing and the consequences of this, such as increased responsibilities for parents, makes online study more difficult than it would be otherwise.”

Not having the right facilities isn’t the only implication of online learning. For students who are beginning their university degree straight after high school, the transition from secondary education to tertiary studies has been a completely different experience compared to first-year students in the past.

Aya Taniguchi is in her first semester of university, studying a Bachelor of Health Science at Swinburne University. Straight out of high school, she was yearning to complete labs and practical work while making new friends. Of course, this all changed when her classes moved online.

“With our labs, they’re [recording them] and then they give us the results and we’ll just have to write it up,” Taniguchi told upstart.

“It’s just weird because you don’t have other [students] who you can bounce your ideas off.”

Although her subjects have now been adapted to suit the circumstances, Taniguchi is not finding her studies as engaging as she would have hoped. She feels she is missing out on developing the crucial skills students would typically establish in their first year of university.

While Brereton,  Garlito and Taniguchi all agree that their institutions have tried their best in adapting to an unthinkable situation, nothing could have prepared them for the challenges that came with learning a practical subject in a virtual setting.


Article: Rebecca Borg is a second-year Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @RebeccaaBorg

Photo: by JESHOOTS available here and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has been resized.