Online College or College Online?

Image Credit: Unsplash licence: Marvin Meyer

As well as lectures, college society has increasingly moved online. Michael Bergin assesses the positives and negatives of this development.

Every generation has their “good old days” I suppose. The times when things were just that bit different, usually before some great event, that changed everything, leaving the happy past every bit as desirable as it is unattainable. It might be the bubble bursting for the generation before us, and the retirement of Jack Charlton for the generation before them, but for us, I think it’s fair to say that any year pre-2020 will incite a painfully nostalgic longing.

Yes, nightclubs might be open again, stadiums might be full again, and life might carry on more or less unhindered (at least for now), but there are certain ways in which we will never be able to return to when facemasks came with cucumber slices as opposed to nose swabs.

One of many irreversible changes to the college experience is the prevalence of online methods of communication. I’m not trying to claim that nobody used social media before the pandemic, of course they did, but today, there are whole classes that have only seen each other from the neck up, via zoom. Relating to a room full of people who share little in common except a timetable is difficult at the best of times, but relating to their turned-off cameras on a zoom call is all but impossible.

we will never be able to return to when facemasks came with cucumber slices as opposed to nose swabs

However, this isn’t to say that an increased focus on online communication is necessarily a bad thing. UCD, being Ireland’s largest University in terms of both area and student population, is a place distinctly lacking any real sense of community. And yet, web pages such as “UCD confessions” have allowed a student culture to blossom that has never really been seen in Belfield. Had the pandemic not forced our social lives online, there is little chance that I would care how cinema guy and cinema girl get on. As it stands, I am intrigued. 

Of course, not all confessions are welcome. The surprisingly many pleas to be “railed” do not make for the most enlightened reading. Nor do the reports of the large chess pieces from the board outside the science building being violated. 

If the stories featured on these pages can at times seem dry, then the possibility of being featured in a confession brings an excitement to campus life. I am by no means an expert, but even I can say the fashion standards around campus have rarely been so high. Gone are the days of wearing your crusty first year UCD jumper and ratty pyjama bottoms, caked in the sorry remnants of your makeup from the previous night to Centra, and in a roundabout way, you can thank the pandemic for that.

In other ways, community has been built around concepts such as “UCD Twitter”, which serves as the collective smoking area for all of UCD. Here you’ll find people far more funny and interesting than anyone you’ll ever actually meet on campus. These places engender a much stronger community spirit, with far more people actively taking part, than regular society events.

For ill or good, enhanced online communication has become an integral part of the student experience. In the case of many students, pages such as UCD confessions and concepts such as UCD Ttwitter serve to shrink the sprawling university grounds into an accessible and oftentimes humorous space. These changes should be embraced, though this does not mean that these developments are without downsides.

These places engender a much stronger community spirit, with far more people actively taking part, than regular society events

When it comes to UCD confessions, student discourse is now effectively in the hands of one anonymous individual, who has absolutely no accountability. Admittedly, the current admin of UCD confessions has proven to be more than capable of applying restraint to confessions that could be seen as damaging or dangerous. There is nothing, however, apart from social media companies’ wafer-thin defenses against online abuse, and the admin’s own good will, to prevent the more licentious confessions being published. Should another admin ever take over the page, what is to stop them publishing these confessions, which would no doubt be much more likely to generate interest?

Aside from placing student discourse in the hands of a private individual, these sites also serve to imbue the student body with a need to look their best at all times. Yes, fashion standards around campus have been raised, but are these not trivial benefits, at the expense of student’s paranoia about their image? There is already enough pressure on students to impress, so surely another metric by which students can be rated and examined is more than a little unwelcome? It’s the flip side of the coin I mentioned earlier, and proof that you may be asking for your crusty jumper and ratty pyjamas yet. Self-image is an extremely important concept for young people, and it is imperative that this is not endangered for the sake of online likes.

If community spirit in UCD exists only through online concepts such as UCD Twitter, surely this is a damning indictment on the failures of the institution. Students do not actively engage in college life unless they can do so from the safety of their phones, and in this way the growth of the online community is fueled on the carcass of the in-person community. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, though I’m not too sure that it is necessarily a good thing.

The pandemic is our generation’s marker, the point at which we cross from the good old days into the brave new world, and it has had numerous irreversible consequences. Of these, perhaps the most noticeable on college campuses is the growth in online communication, as a means of replacing whatever college spirit once existed in Ireland’s sprawling campuses. The advantages and disadvantages of these developments have been made clear. What is unknown is whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs, or vice versa.