5. Interview Research with Students
This chapter is devoted to a comparison of the research results of online university education of the above defined research sample of students in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Kazakhstan. It uses the answers of selected students of special education teacher training at Comenius University in Bratislava, teacher training of mathematics or informatics at the University of Ostrava, and informatics study program at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. There were arrived at through a sequential and multi-layered analysis of the participants’ interview responses to the following eight categories:
Category 1: Problems during the transition from face-to-face to online teaching and learning
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: According to the students’ statements, the biggest problems were technical in nature, and participants had concerns about technical issues (SKP16: “At the beginning I was worried whether I would be able to join the meeting. But everything went fine”). Both students and teachers had not only problems in the beginning, but also problems with using the relevant communication interface (MS Teams, Zoom, Moodle, etc.), creating invitations and in later sending links for connection to students. There were also problems in the field of sufficient/insufficient internet connection (SKP8: “The problem was mainly with connecting to lectures, signal failure, I could not hear the lecturers well”). Students were also forced to buy a new, more powerful laptop and internet connection. In addition to technical problems, they experienced personal health problems and subsequent problems in preparing for classes and completing assignments for individual subjects (SKP11: “At the beginning it was mainly technical and organizational problems, when I was trying to get used to everything. Later, there were problems, especially in maintaining attention, and later I also noticed headaches. I got tired very quickly, I didn’t have the energy after lectures to work on assignments and term seminar works, which I had to do on the PC. So, I was putting everything off and doing it at the last minute just to avoid sitting at the PC, my back and neck were also hurting.” SKP29: “I was experiencing more frequent headaches. As there were some days when I spent 10–12 h behind the laptop”). Students were also critical of the occasional uninterestingness in online lectures compared to face-to-face classes, but immediately added that this could be due to, among other things, the lower activity level of students, as well as the fact that classmates did not know each other personally. The cancellation of practice was also a negative according to the students (SKP21: “At the beginning of the pandemic they cancelled our practice, which was moved to the next semester. Subsequently, however, due to the persistence of the pandemic, the practice was conducted online-through interviews”). Writing tests in an online environment, e.g., via the MS Forms platform, was also a new phenomenon for the students (SKP34: “Writing tests online was something new for me, so I had to get used to it. Also, the Teams application was new for me, but I didn’t have problems with anything, I guess, everything was easy to get used to”).
Students also saw some problems in the level of teaching. Because they went into quarantine mode too quickly, universities were not prepared for this kind of teaching, and there was limited access to books and other print resources. For students studying at foreign universities under the Erasmus+ program, it was a difficult decision as to whether to stay abroad, where also in the early days teaching had moved online, or to return home quickly.
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: The most difficult thing for the students was to find their way around the new situation and to start working more or less independently (CZP01: “It was lucky that the subjects I was enrolled in at that time could be managed online in some way. The situation would have been much worse, in my opinion, if this change of teaching had occurred when I was in my first year-because at that time I needed to adapt to the new place, the material, the teachers, and it was not the easiest thing to do. For that reason, I couldn’t imagine it. In maths, it is important to understand the material, which was sometimes challenging in the case of online learning, and more self-study time was needed than usual”). They also cited inconsistency in the materials sent as a primary problem, as some of the teachers sent materials via email, some uploaded via MS Teams or used prepared courses in LMS Moodle. Another problem was self-discrepancy, as the student was not under the supervision of the tutor, so during the lectures, there were more temptations for distraction (CZP04: “In case the lectures were delivered online, it was very easy to engage in other activities at the same time that are not related to the study at all (reading, chatting, etc.)”, CZP13: “Also the home environment (and especially all those available series and games on the second monitor of the PC) was much more distracting”).
In addition to the stated benefits from online learning, it was also a shock to the students (CZP04: “Especially because independent work and continuous study are not my strong points. Often the teachers did not implement the lessons and only sent materials, which were eventually supplemented by the offer of consultation”). From a technical perspective, students described occasional problems with connectivity.
Overall, they saw a problem in terms of organization (change of metering term) and in terms of implemented teaching, where the dynamics of the direct online teaching did not correspond to the real teaching in the lecture hall or laboratory, as the lecturer did not have follow-up questions and did not see the students’ reactions. Often, there was a lack of feedback to check that students had understood everything correctly. Despite the efforts of some lecturers to activate the students by, for example, asking ‘good’ questions, there was a lack of response from the students. Lessons were delivered at different times, so they changed the weekly schedule completely, or selected teachers switched to complete distance learning with the possibility of consultations.
Although there were major problems at the beginning of the pandemic, these were managed and eliminated as the semesters progressed.
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: In taking the interview, students shared challenges in making the transition from offline to online learning. It is known that many businesses, including higher education institutions, were not ready for the urgent transition, as noted in the answers of students (KZP9: “Nothing was ready for online learning, and it takes some time to transit to it”). This shows that students understand the problems. Mostly there were problems with the connection to the Internet and problems with the light, which is explained by the high load due to the large flow of users. In the answers, many students wrote about this (KZP18: “Weak internet, problems with communication and light. The first classes on the online platform all turned on the cameras, then the system hung heavily, and sometimes displayed an error and shut down. If several students turn on the screen demonstration at the same time, the button would disappear, but then it would appear. During the lesson, when the whole stream comes in, then the entrance is limited and after a few attempts could connect to the lecture”. KZP12: “There were times when I did not have access to the Internet during online classes”). This type of problem occurred not only among students but also among teachers, which can be seen from the response of students (KZP2: “In the beginning of online education, I had problems with lagging Zoom/Teams. Sometimes my internet is disconnected. But teachers sometimes had the same troubles”). Also noted were problems with the network and connection to the Internet in remote regions and villages, which contributed to the urgent coverage of the Internet for education. In addition to this problem, students from far regions and foreigners were invited to stay in dormitories with isolated rooms (KZP18: “There were no problems. I lived in the dormitory of KazNU during the pandemic and connected on time”). Problems were noted with the conduct of laboratory classes, which were carried out with devices in the university’s offices before the pandemic (KZP20: “There were difficulties with the lessons, which included laboratory classes. Because the labs have Raspberry Pi microcontrollers, Arduino IDE, and a lot of sensors with which you can create a smart home device”). There were problems with the lesson schedule, due to which students had to wait for the next lesson (KZP23: “There were problems with the class schedule. Because one lesson could be in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. If we were offline, then usually all the lessons are put after each other, sometimes there is an hour break, but not like online”).
Category 2: Level of digital literacy among students before the pandemic and in present time
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: In general, students expressed that their digital competences were at a fairly good level, even before the pandemic (SKP2: “I knew everything.” SKP4: “I work with different devices and applications all the time, even in my working life. So, this transition and software literacy was not something new for me”).
For some students, the level increased (SKP16: “My digital literacy level is higher after the pandemic. I have learnt how to work better with PCs and use relevant software, which I consider as a benefit.” SKP20: “We mostly use MS Teams, Moodle…before the pandemic I never came across them. I had no problem learning how to use them, it was just reading comprehension.” SKP21: “Before the pandemic my digital literacy was at a lower level, my first introduction to software like MS Teams, MS Forms was during the pandemic.” SKP26: “I had no problem operating PC, NTB even before the pandemic. The biggest problem for me was to learn how to work in MS Teams, where all our lessons were held. I think we all worked well with the software, the biggest problem for some of us was learning to have the microphone turned off, which also created a lot of funny stories. Personally, the worst part for me was making sure I had a good connection, as we were all working from home, and it was often a situation for me to get disconnected from calls. It was also challenging to type quickly on the keyboard during the very time-constrained examinations”).
For some students, digital competence/digital literacy remained at the same level (SKP3: “It’s at the same level, it’s just that digital literacy has been added to the programs that I didn’t know about before. But nothing major that would affect life. But it has brought positives in using these programs and in understanding that they can be used in other activities”).
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: For students studying technically oriented programs, digital literacy was at the same level before and during the pandemic. For other disciplines, there was a slight improvement, especially in the use of digital technologies (CZP11), Microsoft Teams online tools (CZP13). The biggest gains were in students’ use of the cloud to support learning and use of Discord for more complex assignments and exercises (CZP14).
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: Many of the students who answered the interview stated that they were experienced digital users and had a good command of the basic necessary skills, such as fast typing, video calls and file uploads (KZP23: “I managed to login to Zoom and MS Teams without problems. Uploaded files to the Univer system. Attending online classes was convenient to combine with work. It was necessary to hand over the specified deadlines, which is very convenient to look at in the system”), (KZP18: “It was no problem. I knew all programs before pandemic”). Some talked about the efforts of teachers to make the lesson interesting and informative (KZP25: “During the pandemic, many teachers used additional resources like Kahoot, Kaggle, etc. to be interesting to the student. I learned a lot of programs and applications for work”). Since our faculty teaches information technology, students from the first year learn new technologies and master programming languages, which they noted in the answers (KZP63: “Digital literacy has not improved much since the pandemic, because before the pandemic, the lessons were related to programming and using PCs”). However, there are students who entered the university during the pandemic and mastered technology during their studies (KZP24: “Before the pandemic, I studied at school and I didn’t use online platforms like Zoom and MS Teams. Now I own it well and use it to discuss the task of lessons among students”). As a result, we can safely say that almost all students have mastered digital technologies, and senior students have improved their skills.
Category 3: Changing the student as a person and his/her personal life during a pandemic
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: Many situations arise in a person’s life that affect them more or less in several areas of functioning and existence. Many changes will directly or indirectly cause the person and their behavior and actions to change. The pandemic, especially its long two-year duration, has affected not only the education of students, but also the students themselves. While the students’ responses are similar in many aspects, many of the responses are ambivalent.
If we understand the pandemic as a negative determinant, then it is possible to say, for example, regarding psychological burden, the following: limiting social contacts with friends, limiting socializing with family, changes in the logistics of studying, working and raising children, being cut off from society, losing comfort in the company of people, the stress of the transition to online learning, people’s negative attitude to life, people’s hostility, and people’s unwillingness to help. It relates to other components, such as helplessness, closed-mindedness, sadness, indifference, demotivation, and fear. Students also commented that returning home from dormitory was difficult (SKP23: “Coming home was difficult, I interrupted my part-time job, I had to get used to spending longer periods of time at home in the children’s room again. Unfortunately, since we were at home my physical health deteriorated, I gained weight, I got lazy.”). Another participant concluded the whole thing in a very straightforward way (SKP27: “I lacked socialization. Unfortunately, we lost an important part of our student life”).
The paradox is that the pandemic has also brought a lot of positive things to the students’ lives. They were able to spend more time with their loved ones, themselves, their interests and hobbies, and their health (SKP27: “On the contrary, over time I learned to be more with myself, more with my family, and to value my health”). Many students reported improved family relationships, stabilization of daily routines, more time for learning and for extracurricular activities, and awareness of the importance of social connections. The testimony of SKP10 shows a lot in this way: “At the same time, the big positive of this whole thing for me was that one came to know what is most important in our lives, and that is one’s health and the health of loved ones. Further, appreciating the little things. Just being in close contact with loved ones, seeing their smile on their face, hearing their voice… but also to do various activities that fulfil us-sports, a walk-in nature, a trip…”. In addition to the above-mentioned positives of the pandemic, it was noted a satisfaction among participants with having more time for their own interests and activities (SKP14: “…I have time for other things, and especially I don’t have to travel to Bratislava”). One participant (SKP18) even started to do more housework, another (SKP3) perceived that the biggest benefit of the pandemic was that she managed to lose weight thanks to her regular eating regime, and one even found a partner thanks to the pandemic and the move online (SKP25). Improving one’s own time management (SKP32), realizing that it is not bad at home (SKP31), realizing how fragile our health is and how important time spent with loved ones is (SKP34) also resonated in the responses.
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: Since no one was prepared for this situation and did not have enough information, the students reacted in different ways. Students who are more antisocial in everyday life had the opportunity to huddle in their homes, which also impaired their subsequent networking and interaction skills in real life (CZP02” I worked more for school, felt better in class when I was in my environment and “hid” behind the computer. “ Based on the negative impact of the pandemic on their personal lives, they lost the ability to function among people (CZP11) and became introverted and lazy. CZP06:” The willingness to leave the comfort of their own home has decreased rapidly. Demands for freer and more flexible schedules have increased”). All students mainly describe problems with psychological stress, impossibility of personal social contact, and impossibility of realizing favorite sport activities. On the other hand, the students tried to improve the quality of their life by all possible means (deepening social contact within the family, eating healthy and regularly, and personal development) and to give it a daily routine, or to start being active in the home environment. The students also appreciated the absence of long commutes to the university, which was reflected in the overall time savings (CZP07: “…as one did not have to commute to Ostrava, catching transfers from faculty to faculty and individual exercises or lectures” and CZP08: “less time on the road = more time for personal development”).
Overall, students in the later phase of online learning lost motivation, were unfocused and less productive. The pandemic helped students improve not only time management skills, but also in their awareness of priorities in life (CZP16: “Related to this, the pandemic period made me think more about my health, for example”).
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: The pandemic has become an impetus for the development of innovative technologies around the world. Humanity has long had the resources to actively introduce technology into the process of work and learning. In my opinion, for all the harm that COVID-19 has brought, one of the positive consequences is the active spread of remote work and distance learning. Many see this as a threat, saying that telecommuting will never replace face-to-face interaction. Man is a social being; without society, he cannot develop and be himself. Correspondence in social networks does not allow replacing live meetings and conversations. It seems to me that the pandemic has allowed people to look differently at everyday things. Indeed, there are professions in which you can neither work nor study remotely. Many have learned to better manage their time; it was required to independently organize their work and rest regimen (KZP27: “Learned how to use my time effectively. I am glad that I spent more time with family and friends”). I can even say that I am happy to note that during the pandemic, many people realized that most of the bureaucracy does not make sense; there is no point in printing educational materials, accepting any documents in printed form (KZP41: “Learn to take time for yourself to exercise. When we studied offline, we spent more time on the road and got very tired in the evening. Become more responsible and mindset has changed”, KZP29: “As long as it’s not a back problem, then everything is fine. Even had a positive impact on personal development”, KZP37: “The pandemic has changed me a lot. I began to respect my family, friends from Shymkent. It was a very comfortable time”).
Category 4: The change of university education during the pandemic period
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: One of the significant changes brought by the pandemic was the shift of education from the real university environment to the online space. Many universities, educators and students were not prepared for this situation. It took a considerable amount of time for all involved to first set up an effective online space and select the platforms through which education could take place. Subsequently, both students and teachers needed to be trained. Many of the subjects that are part of the training content are practical in nature, and it was these subjects that were problematic to bring ‘on the screen’. Teachers were forced to change not only their conception of their teaching, but also their conception of their preparation for teaching, as well as their conception of their own thinking. For the students, apart from the change, it mainly brought a new experience (e.g., SKP4: “It has moved forward, we have started to use technologies that we had not used before”). A very nice response was recorded from participant SKP17, who summarized it as follows: “I think online learning has raised important questions about the suitability of the form of learning for a selected group of students. I was already considering at the time whether part of the study could be moved completely online, but on the other hand this would have to be balanced by e.g., face-to-face events that would emphasize networking, discussions, and the social aspect of getting together rather than static lectures. Lecturers would be incentivized to ensure that their presentations include these elements. On the other hand, I see quite a lot of passivity on the side of the students, which was probably there before, but the online form probably encouraged it a bit more”.
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: The most significant change was the complete shift of teaching to an online environment. For disciplines that have a distance learning format, the move was seamless. However, for other majors, it was very challenging, as they had to change their teaching style and methods. Most of the teachers tried to deliver the material to the students effectively, creating and sharing many new course materials (CZP06:” Video conferencing, chat rooms and individual video calls via webcam have become widely used. The use of the Internet also started to increase, as it was not in the power of the teachers to translate everything they had prepared for face-to-face teaching into digital form-the mutual inspiration of the teachers became tangible at every step. “ and CZP01: “… some subjects could be mastered “more easily” thanks to online teaching than if they had been taught face-to-face, as some requirements were modified”). Students were mostly positive about the teachers during the epidemic, understanding that the transition was very challenging for them (CZP02: “Teachers were more helpful, understanding, communicative”). Additional online tools and learning environments were used that are not normally used in face-to-face teaching, which student teachers valued as being beneficial for their future practice.
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: In general, speaking about the changes that have taken place at the university, we note the mobility of all structural divisions, the increase in digital and computer literacy of teachers, staff and students, the decrease in the number of meetings, and the increased workload on teachers and students. Distance education has also significantly expanded the opportunities for teaching staff, staff and students to take additional distance learning courses and improve their skills in various areas (KZP31: “Many teachers have started using LMS Moodle. On this platform, all video lectures and practical tasks are written, we had to study and complete tasks before the deadline. The use of such systems has improved the understanding of the subject, because if it is not clear from the first viewing, then you can review the video lecture several times, which makes life easier”).
Teachers recommended additional online courses, such as Cisco and Stepik to expand students’ knowledge (KZP39) (KZP35. “Welp. On the one hand I have to admit that computer and internet technology grew up because of the pandemic. But some teachers did not adapt and gave us a lot of homework. But some of them adapted and it was the coolest time of education”). Most students think there has been progress in higher education, especially in IT. As for digital technologies, I think it is still underdeveloped. However, the remote format itself is very convenient, even when you are free. That is, there is a maximum of a week to reflect on the task. The format itself would not say that it was beneficial, because basically only courses were held (KZP35). Many respondents noted that education at the university has improved for the better (KZP46: “Yes, our university quickly accepted the epidemiological situation and immediately switched to distance learning”, KZP37: “Yes, there has been progress in the use of modern technology. learning has become convenient”). It has improved for the better. At a minimum, we have adopted many Internet programs that are likely to help us make life easier while working.
Category 5: Time consumption of self-study
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: Self-study forms an integral part of university education. It is a part of study that involves not only the students’ duty, but also their motivation, activity, and desire for knowledge and learning. Students approach it differently, influenced by several factors, such as sufficient/lack of time, work commitments, other study obligations, personal qualities, family background, study conditions, etc. The research focus was oriented to the fact that how the time commitment of students’ self-study changed in online learning compared to traditional face-to-face learning. Several students expressed that the time demands for their self-study remained about the same (SKP4: “As far as studying is concerned, I do not observe any changes. The online lectures were as full as if they were delivered in a face-to-face format. Even the study materials from the lecturers were more accessible and immediately available by uploading to MS Teams.” SKP9: “Same. Some documents were even more accessible during the online study”). Because students did not have to travel to school, which is a non-negligible amount of time, they had more time to complete assignments (SKP7; SKP31: “I had much more time to learn. I didn’t have to travel too often to school, which took up a lot of my time. I had more time to create deliverables for my subject during the distance learning.”). However, ambivalent responses also emerged in this category. For some students, self-study during online learning was much easier and less time consuming (SKP18: “Time-consuming is much more difficult in face-to-face teaching and learning”. SKP21: “During face-to-face teaching, the time commitment for self-study was at least in my case several times higher.”), while for others, it was exactly the opposite, and they felt that self-study during online learning was difficult for them (SKP8: “I definitely had to study more during the pandemic, especially it was a problem to get the necessary study material.” SKP19: “It was very difficult, I spent more than 15 h on the computer, my eyesight got worse.“ SKP25: “The time-consuming self-study during online learning increased many times. It was a big problem to find freely available literature as libraries were also closed. It was much more acceptable for me to self-study during a face-to-face class”).
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: Self-study before the pandemic was perceived as part of exam preparation, with students completing various assignments in between classes (CZP02: “Before the pandemic-studying only for exams/tests. During the pandemi -preparing for lessons, counting examples, preparation. “). During the pandemic, the situation reversed, and students had to intensify self-study, look up information on the subject matter, re-watch videos of the class, and complete a large number of projects, exercises, and term assignments that were not part of the direct instruction before the pandemic (CZP01: “During the pandemic we had to work on various homework assignments, projects, and independent work. I think the preparation and self-study during the semester took a lot more time than before the pandemic.”). Some students also expressed the view of a distorted perception of the time demands of activities from the perspective of the instructor. It is true that attention and focus decreased during the direct online instruction, which was one reason for the subsequent higher engagement in the self-study.
Interestingly, there was a group of students who did not experience any increased or decreased self-study demands (CZP08:” I did not notice any significant changes.”). On the other hand, some students could not objectively assess the time demands of self-study due to other subjects before and during the pandemic (CZP17).
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: Most respondents noted an increase in workload. In general, this is not surprising, since the transition to a remote format required from all participants in this process the ability to quickly adapt, explore new ways and approaches in teaching and learning, work on time management and increased responsibility for their results. On the other hand, students indicated that load remained unchanged. Students, in turn, noted the development of independence and responsibility for the results of their learning, increased free time and access to the online library. Students also noted physical discomfort from being in front of a computer for a long time, and the lack of live contact with teachers, the difficulty of participating in general discussions and involving all students in the educational process as a disadvantage.
Some students emphasized the difficulties in self-expression during distance learning, the lack of creative activity. More time was left for self-study than being wasted on the road. With the development of digitalization, the necessary books and materials can be found on the Internet or in the electronic library of the university (KZP48: “More time is left for self-study. Started developing my skills and hobbies”). There is a lot of free time in online learning (KZP51: “You can also develop yourself, go in for sports, etc. And in an offline format, you don’t even have time to sleep. Transport, road, traffic jams take longer. In online learning there is more time for self-study, and full-time learning takes a lot of time”). According to the interview, students understand that all things depend on themselves (KZP53: “In the online format, there is no need to do everything at a certain time, you can think at least day and night. And in person it’s the other way around. I can do it whenever I want, if I will do it with pleasure it will be better”). Most of the students indicate the big difference is the waste time and money on travel and food instead of self-learning.
Category 6: Communication of students with their university during the pandemic period
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: Before the pandemic situation at Comenius University in Bratislava, the LMS Moodle was used, and MS Teams within a small range of users. This situation changed during pandemic situation because many teachers were forced to use these environments, even though they did not use them before. Although there were rare online meetings via chat, Skype, WhatsApp, etc., direct contact with students was preferred. Social communication is an interactive process between two or more people. Although communication can take many forms, talking face to face with another person has other associated benefits, such as the ability to perceive facial expressions, gesticulation, the context of the communication, emotions, etc. These are all at the same time concomitant features of face-to-face teaching, where there exists interaction between the lecturer and the students. The shift of students’ university education training to the online environment has broken the immediate social and communication links between lecturer and student, and communication has been conducted exclusively at a distance through electronic devices and media, mainly by email, MS Teams, Zoom, Skype, SMS, or phone calls. As participants indicated in their accounts, communication with the school, and especially with educators, was almost seamless (SKP28: “Communication via the internet was seamless during the pandemic, it was done via email. The speed of feedback to teachers varied.” SKP29: “Unless there were any unforeseen technical problems, communication via email was functional.” SKP34: “If it happened that I needed to communicate with a lecturer/teacher, the response came quickly within two days at most”).
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: At the University of Ostrava, the LMS Moodle, Google Classroom and MS Teams were used before the pandemic situation. Communication with the lecturer was almost seamless (CZP01), the most used tools for communication were MS Teams, LMS Moodle, e-mail (effective and fast communication CZP06), and in exceptional cases via Google tools (CZP07). A major positive was that teachers responded quickly (CZP07) and even in the evening (CZP01) after discussion with the teacher (CZP12). CZP16 stated the following: “Communication even improved in some ways during the pandemic (at least school-student communication). Thanks to the fact that everyone started using MS Teams, which was only marginally used before the pandemic, it has been possible to communicate faster with teachers since the pandemic…”
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: Online learning systems, such as UNIVER, LMS Moodle, and MOOCs, were used by Al-Farabi Kazakh National University before the pandemic situation. Rapid adaptation to distance education of students directly depends on the ability and readiness of the university to provide the necessary support. The greatest support was provided in the organization of training courses. Most students also noted the satisfaction, which is also very important for obtaining up-to-date information and feedback on the innovations introduced and the measures taken. The university provides online consulting and support hotlines. Despite the difficulties that the pandemic has presented in the field of education, it is important to emphasize the possibilities of distance learning.
The students in this interview noted that they had more opportunities to keep in touch with their teachers, review lectures and regularly monitor progress in their personal account. They noted that they began to communicate with teachers on social networks. Curators created group chats not only for students, but also for parents (KZP43: “Communication with teachers was good. If there were questions, we could write or call for example and get answers”, KZP21: “During the pandemic, the curator has been our guide. She was constantly in touch, and we wrote all the questions in the chat in the group and even called the number. It was able to communicate with everyone by WhatsApp. But some days I had to track by WhatsApp 24/7”). Students note that they were satisfied with the work of teachers, and communication with the university, not to mention technical problems (KZP77: “During the pandemic, there were no problems in this regard. They helped us in online learning as well as offline. Everything was accessible and understandable”).
Category 7: The negatives of online university education during the pandemic period
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: Participants’ responses show that some students did not register any negatives. However, there were also some who noticed several and students were affected by them. It is possible from these kinds of responses to note the following: lessons were less interactive and the material was harder to remember (SKP1); closed libraries (SKP2); lack of social contacts and little or no practice (SKP3; SKP9; SKP10); problems with internet access and getting the necessary study materials (SKP8); constant activity on the computer, impaired eyesight, increased number of assignments (SKP19); minimizing exercise, deteriorating physical and mental health, difficulty concentrating on lectures in the home environment, loss of contact with classmates (SKP23); poorer quality of teaching, higher demands from teachers, lack of information, social isolation (SKP24); inability to teach online in all homes due to lack of necessary technology, frequent problems with internet connection dropouts, distorted feedback during class, low level of computer skills on both sides (teachers and students), isolation from society, and loss of socially acceptable behaviors and habits such as dining and greeting.
A very long answer was given by participant SKP11: “I find as negative the lack of practice, practical learning, we had to learn everything only in a theoretical way, which did not help me to decide what I would like to do in the future. The limitation of contacts, I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know my classmates better. It became progressively harder to concentrate during the online lectures, we deprived ourselves of a lot of knowledge in this way. I also find it negative the fact that we had to do a lot of work in groups, and it was extremely difficult to agree on the division of work and the meeting itself. Overall, this online class was challenging and the longer it went on, the less quality of learning I got. I don’t just blame the school. Obviously, the way I approached everything was influenced by things other than education”.
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: All respondents agreed on one thing, namely that there was a limitation of direct contact with teachers and classmates during the pandemic. There was an emphasis on self-study in teaching (CZP01) as some teachers resigned from teaching (CZP05). Before the pandemic, the most used tool at our faculty was LMS Moodle, which according to CZP15 students, gave way to MS Teams during the pandemic and now respondents must watch all communication tools: emails, MS Teams and LMS Moodle. They ask for the tools to be reduced or to be unified within courses. In addition to face-to-face teaching, they negatively evaluate the inability to use the department’s special equipment for faculty during a pandemic (CZP12).
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: Students often point out the lack of personal communication and social interaction as a disadvantage of distance education, which is one of the most important competencies in the field of human–human sciences. Educational functions do not work and emotionality disappears, which negatively affects communicative competencies. It was also noted that opportunities for practice-oriented learning and experimental work for science departments have decreased. Technical issues are noted as a separate item: some students are not satisfied with the quality of the Internet and proctoring, and increased time spent at the computer.
In addition, among the answers, psychological discomfort is emphasized from the fact that the audience may not hear the answers to the teacher’s questions.
Students also noted physical discomfort from being in front of a computer for a long time and the lack of live contact with teachers, the difficulty of participating in general discussions and involving all students in the educational process as a disadvantage. Some students emphasized the difficulties in self-expression during distance learning, the lack of creative activity. It is important to note that many students expressed their personal statement, that they feel the lack of social life as the main disadvantage of switching to distance learning (KZP46: “Basically, deterioration in health is also due to the constant sedentary mode near the computer. I was losing sight, increasing stress and constantly checking mail and phone”, KZP83: “During the quarantine, I entered the first year. I did not know my classmates and even the audience of the university. It was difficult to find the numbers of fellow students and to connect and learn. Could not meet friends and spend time in nature. Fear of getting sick with this virus”). There was no direct opportunity to discuss the topic of the lesson extensively with teachers, and often the network did not catch well. Big negatives for students were a lot of homework. Sometimes, they had 3–4 times more homework than usual. Large problems included internet connection and lag from Zoom/Teams.
Some of them had problems with limitations and deadlines: time to download homework (KZP56: “If teacher gave you homework on Saturday 15:00. You had to download it at 22:59. But at the end of the week you have emotional damage and I have no motivation to do something”. KZP49: “To be honest, as a student of the technical direction, there were a lot of laboratory subjects. Because of the pandemic, everything had to be done only through programs. As a result, we don’t even understand now how everything should be done in practice. Some subjects required extra components for laboratory tasks that can’t be found at home. It was difficult when the lights were turned off during milestones and sessions, when the Internet was not working with us and with some teachers”).
Category 8: The positives of online university education during the pandemic period
Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: Although it may seem that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a lot away from us and brought negative things into our lives, some positive statements by participants’ responses were noted as well. Students are aware of several positive aspects. These include in particular the benefits in increasing students’ digital literacy (SKP2; SKP6); the increased digitization and computerization of education (SKP1); the reduced need for external students to take holidays (SKP5); and the savings in time and money associated with travel and accommodation (SKP8; SKP28, SKP32); improvement in technical matters when working with digital technologies and different programs (SKP10); and the convenience of being able to stay at home and at the same time perceive different innovative approaches using online technologies (SKP17). Participant SKP34 perceived positives in that she experienced less stress during the pandemic, had more time to prepare more thoroughly, and the evaluation of online tests was done almost immediately after travel. A more comprehensive view of the positives and benefits of pandemic education was provided by participant SKP3: “Learning that even in an online environment you can do it if you want to… I think it’s a good form of education for external students, so they don’t have to travel for weekends to the city where the university is located. And if the student cares about it, they can prepare for the classes just as well. It has ‘forced’ many students to set their own priorities, which is also a positive”.
University of Ostrava, Czech Republic: All respondents ranked the biggest positive of online teaching as: no commute = more time. Furthermore, the possibility to replay the recorded lesson was the most convenient for them, but also more processed and available study materials.
With the huge shift in the integration of digital technologies into teaching (CZP05; CZP06; CZP11, CZP12), this means that many kinds of teaching and learning activities were realized through these technologies (lectures, seminars, examinations, etc.)
Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Republic of Kazakhstan: Among students, the development of the ability to think and the increase in their independence were highlighted as the advantages of the transition to distance education. In terms of personal and professional development, they noted the training in digital skills and digital literacy, and the opportunity to engage in creativity and self-development by increasing free time. Speaking about the quality and content of education, students note that the quality of the material has become higher, and the use of modern software and hardware makes e-learning more effective. New technologies make it possible to make visual information bright and dynamic to build the education process itself, taking into account the active interaction of the student with the learning system. Students noted the development of independence and responsibility for the results of their learning, increased free time and access to the online library.
Many respondents noted as a positive point the absence of the need to waste time on the road to the university (KZP38: “I am glad that more time was spent with family and friends. I began to value our time and spend it on important goals and plans. Our literacy in the use of new applications and Internet resources has increased. I do not waste time and money on the road. We got more tired while getting to the university with morning traffic jams and back with evening traffic jams and a lot of people on buses and the subway”, KZP40: “During quarantine, the city has become much cleaner, and nature has blossomed. Since everyone is at home, there are few cars and public transport in the streets, which has a good effect on nature”). The pandemic period changed the reference representation of education. A lot of students and teachers had to admit that online education can be more effective or the same as that offline. In my opinion, it is great because you can use this knowledge while sitting at home. Digitalization has improved, and there is an opportunity to study and work at the same time, gaining experience. For most students, online learning is very convenient and understandable. If you miss classes for some reason, you can review the video lesson. Additionally, there is no need to go anywhere and dress up, which saves time.