My grandson wants to be Steven Spielberg – but better Image: PA:Press Association

The challenge

I have a grandson in England who was hoping to go to university this fall. His parents are trying very hard to help him work out what to do. There are hundreds of thousands of young men and women all round the world in a similar position to my grandson’s. So my son, said, ‘You’re an expert in online learning and higher education. What would you tell him?’

I took a big breath, swallowed, and said. ‘I really don’t know. There is no good solution – only some that are not quite as bad as some others.’ (I tell you, I hate it when I don’t know the answer.)

Context is important

First of all, every student situation is different. It particularly depends on what you want to study. If you want to do English literature, or post-colonial Canadian history, or mathematics, you could do at least one semester, and possibly two, perfectly well online if you go to a university with previous experience of doing online learning well (which is about two-thirds of Canadian universities – but only 20% in the UK, according to Sir Tim O’Shea, former Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University). By the summer term of 2021, you can catch up on the social and personal development aspects of university without much loss.

When online is not a good solution

So what does my grandson want to study? Frankly, he wants to be Steven Spielberg, but better. He wants to be a film or video producer. He had applied for an excellent BA film program in the UK for anyone wanting to work in the film industry, but he is totally devastated to learn that at least the first term and probably more will be fully online because of Covid-19 (which is ravaging England at the moment).

He has three objections:

  • the reason he chose the program was because it was advertised as being largely hands-on;
  • he is a very social young man, and was really looking forward to making new friends and possible connections in the film industry;
  • student fees in England are very high, and while he is willing to take on some debt and be helped out by family, he wants value for that kind of money, which he doesn’t feel he will get by studying alone at home.

What are the alternatives?

The usual alternatives are also difficult for him:

  • Ideally he could take a ‘gap’ year, and travel the world, but that’s not a good idea for the next nine months at least, until Covid-19 is under control globally
  • he could try and get some work experience in the local film industry, except that there is little or no location shooting and there are many full-time, experienced film people out of work
  • he could choose another course or program that would work OK online for a year or so, but that would mean at least postponing his dream and it is very much NOT what he wants to do
  • he is also exploring work visas for Canada, Australia or New Zealand, with the hope of getting into a film school in one of these countries, but again, with Covid-19 rampant in England, the borders may well be closed to him for the next nine months at least.

Throw Brexit into the mix, and the whole family’s disgust at Boris Johnson and the way the country is going, and being confined to home all day because of the coronavirus, and you can imagine the state my grandson is in. I hasten to add that I am aware he is not alone, that many other potential students are in worse positions, etc., etc., but he is my grandson and feel I should be able to give him some help if he wants it. 

Some advice

What I did was to send him the link to a video from WCET, with excellent advice and empathy from Jessica Rowland Williams, the Director of EveryLearnerEverywhere. The most important:

  • do what you think is the best for you, once you’ve explored all the options: it’s your life
  • so don’t give up on your dream; it may not be a straight route to your dream but your dream does give you an anchor and a point to aim for
  • be flexible in getting to your dream; so do what it takes to succeed.

In my grandson’s case, I think the most useful but hardest advice is: be patient (that’s hard because he is only 18 after all). This will go away. Wait until 2021 to start your BA Film program. In the meantime, enjoy life as best you can, and don’t give up on your dream. (Yes, that does mean you DO have permission to play video games all day – until next year).

Implications for universities

But what will happen to the universities, you may ask, if all students followed my advice? Wouldn’t they would go bust if they all wait a year?

First, this advice is not appropriate for all students. Some programs will work perfectly well online. Second, it might be an idea to ‘rest’ some programs for a year anyway if they need a lot of close proximity in the teaching, such as certain lab-based subjects.  Third, some universities indeed will go bust (especially in England), whatever I advise. But those that come through this, with excellent online programs to supplement their on-campus programs, will be stronger. And don’t put the cart before the horse. Universities are there to serve students, not the other way round (yes, I know that’s sacrilege.)

Let’s hear it for the class of 2020

There is one thing about which I am certain. Those students of the (potential) class of 2020 who work through this horrible situation and come out the other side in a good mental state will be the leaders of the future. I wish every one of them every success – and I hope to live to see my grandson get his Oscar.


  1. Many people think that online learning is easy and simple, but when you come across it you understand that it is much more complicated and problematic than classical learning.

  2. It is hard to organize yourself in such a times. There are a bunch of services that provide a huge number of video games.
    The thing that drives me nuts that I do not have a license for MS Word at home computer and I do not have money to buy it. Open Office do not provide even a half of functions. I found this but you need to have a stable internet connection.

  3. Yes, the main problem with online learning is that it is not effective for all educational programs. And I sincerely feel sorry for all students who face the problems of distance learning.
    We have been studying remotely since September (I mean my college) and I am not quite happy with it. But at least my program is well adapted for online learning and I am not missing anything so important.
    An essential part of remote learning now is finding resources for learning and research on your own. For example, this is what I use: in my case, remote learning involves a lot of self-study, so I spend more time than attending lectures face to face.


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