The student experience is more than just cramming for the next test. More often than not, it’s also about getting to know a new city, making new friends and going out, and starting new projects together. What effects has COVID-19 had on student life? We sat down and talked about it with the spokesperson of the student body Magdalena Bürk and Professor Christian Barrot, Dean of Programs.
I. Teaching: Studying During the Pandemic
In March 2020, KLU switched to online teaching as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The students were informed at the end of their finals period. Were you and your fellow students caught off guard?
Magdalena Bürk: No, we had been expecting it. I remember very clearly the discussion we had in the student lounge after our final exam. "Are we still going to a bar today? Nah, not a good idea." That was the last time we saw each other, and then we received the information that after that weekend, we’d be continuing online. We were all really excited in our first Zoom session. We were laughing the whole time because it was weird to see ourselves on camera and because, of course, there were glitches. For example, when someone wanted to share their screen but wound up ending the meeting instead.
Why were the students given such short notice about shifting online?
Christian Barrot: We wanted to finish out the finals period as planned at the end of the teaching quarter. It’s a period of time where everyone is nervous anyway so we didn’t want to create any added excitement.
How was it possible to make the transition so quickly?
Christian Barrot: The transition itself took place over the weekend, but of course we had been planning ahead. As of February, we had already started planning for online teaching, and, among other things, acquired Zoom licenses, set up access for all users, and compiled manuals.
A completely new situation! What was difficult about it for students?
Magdalena Bürk: For us it was the social aspect. We knew that we would not be seeing each other again until after the semester break in September.
Christian Barrot: A great deal of uncertainty was noticeable particularly among the bachelor’s students. For many, the COVID pandemic has been probably the first major crisis in their lives. It was important to me to reach out to them specifically when encouraging our students. In addition to their regular coursework, we also invited each class to “town hall” meetings in order to discuss the situation.
From the students’ point of view, what worked well during the transition period?
Magdalena Bürk: The online classes worked well. But, in the beginning, it was difficult for us to actively participate. Little things like catch-up questions at the beginning of the lecture, online tools like Kahoot quizzes, and mentimeter polls, and the "video on" rule were and continue to be very helpful. The way our profs keep in touch with us is also extremely motivating. They’re great at responding to our needs by asking us when we need breaks and hosting feedback sessions, etc. And they have also been very understanding whenever we get stuck.
There was a brief hybrid phase in the fall. Students could participate in classes either in person on campus or online. Currently it seems online teaching is the new normal. What does a typical day look like when you have lectures?
Magdalena Bürk: To be honest, my day doesn’t usually start until about fifteen minutes before the first lecture, at 8:15 a.m. I get up, wash my face, make coffee, and sit down at my laptop. During the first break, I make myself breakfast, then the lecture continues. At noon, I like to go for a walk. When I have the afternoon off, I go straight to the office to work at my student job. For lectures, I'm then back at my place. So, everyday life is pretty one-sided, I would say.
Christian Barrot: Calling it the new normal isn’t totally accurate when talking about KLU. If you look at 2020 as a whole, we were on campus throughout the first quarter. Then we started teaching online in mid-March. The third quarter, which started in September, was more or less completely in person on campus, and the fourth, too, in parts. At other universities, the semester ended in February 2020 and the students haven’t seen the inside of their university since.
Looking back, what have some of the milestones been when dealing with COVID?
Christian Barrot: Enabling what’s possible and doing it one step at a time—that was our main focus. The first step focused on damage control: we wanted to ensure that everyone could take their finals and that no one lost a semester. In order to make this possible, we switched to online teaching in March 2020. In the fall, we reopened the campus which required a huge financial, technical, and organizational effort on our part. That was the right thing to do! Because for first-year students in particular, life on campus is crucial. There’s a big mental leap from being at school to attending university.
We made it work, and we were also able to hold both a live graduation event on campus and livestream it for the first time ever. I thought it was pretty cool that we could give students a ceremonial graduation and not just send them an email with their diplomas attached.
Then the number of cases went back up and we switched to a hybrid model. Every course, every cohort, and every class had one lecture on campus per week. Without that option we would have run the risk of them losing that cohesive feeling as a group. Besides, I always thought it is better to allow our students to meet on campus with all our hygiene precautions, COVID tracing, and good ventilation in place rather than in secret in some cramped private apartments.
By Christmas it had become clear that the first quarter would need to be held online again. What was different compared to March 2020?
Christian Barrot: We said, okay, then it’s time for us to up our game, because the expectations of our students tend to be rising one year after the first semester online. For example, at the KLU Innovators Day we incorporated for the first time digital live sessions with leading logistics startups from not just Europe but also Africa, Asia, North and South America. Or in my entrepreneurship class, we had an interactive session with a start-up founder from New York joining us online. Having these added digital elements is what brings in that wow factor, and that lines up with our aspirations. After all, we want to provide excellent teaching, even when online.
Magdalena Bürk: Yes, online classes are improving a lot. I noticed a huge difference at the beginning of 2021 compared to our first online semester in 2020. I would say that the amount of information I’ve acquired hasn’t been any less than if we had been meeting in person on campus.
II. Student Life During COVID
The student experience is more than just cramming for the next test. More often than not, it’s also about getting to know a new city, making new friends and going out, and starting new projects together. What effects has COVID-19 had on student life?
Magdalena Bürk: We don't have a regular student life right now. I don't see anyone from my university and my cohort had a real low in February/March of this year. The weather was terrible, internships were hard to find, and one thing after another just kept piling up. Everyone was complaining about how strange it is to be a student right now. We are tired of COVID. On the other hand we always remind ourselves that everyone is in this situation, whether it's in retail, daycare, or at university. Many of us have gotten over this hump. We've learned to value the little things like talking a walk with a friend, sending each other messages, and things like that.
Christian Barrot: If we’re talking about course content, we can cope with the crisis. Our students aren’t doing a slimmed-down emergency bachelor's currently; they are completing a full-fledged degree at a very high academic level. But being a student is also the time when you develop friendships, find partners, and spend time abroad. Not having this is not going to kill you, but it does affect you. And that's why our goal is to open up again in the fall, to make these contacts and experiences possible again for our students.
How do you stay in touch with each other outside of class?
Magdalena Bürk: We are constantly in touch via social media and through regular video calls. As student representative, I often message our WhatsApp group and say “ We are in this together! Keep your heads up! ” The others keep telling me how sad it is that we don't get to see each other. However, through the online lectures during the pandemic, I have also made many new contacts. I’ve been in breakout rooms (editor's note: extra online rooms for small group work) with fellow students where I’ve thought, “hey, on campus I would never have gone out for coffee with you.” But doing group work together has enabled that connection. That was really cool.
How does Kühne Logistics University help its community stay in touch with one another?
Magdalena Bürk: The university administration will soon be supporting online student recreational events. This could go in the direction of pub quizzes or something similar. I think this could be exciting, especially for international students, as a way to stay in touch with their cohort if they are not yet able to return to Hamburg in the fall.
Christian Barrot: My goal is that in the summer we can offer all our students the opportunity to get vaccinated through our university medical service as a decisive step back toward normality. It's not just about having lectures; it’s about being able to shake hands or hug each other again.
What are you most looking forward to when it’s possible for student life as we know it to resume?
Christian Barrot: Just to be able to walk down the hall again, open a door, have a chat, tell a joke or a story here and there. That’s what I want to get back to.
Magdalena Bürk: It's about social contact: sitting outside, studying, laughing, and celebrating together. This is the KLU family spirit that we all know and love so much. We have to live it again, and more than how it is now in virtual form. And I think that a good ending to all of this is where we have a family again that can come together and hug each other.
All KLU information relating to the corona crisis can be found here – a collection of news, online events, analyses & comments, and expert contacts: