The transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses in the ANU’s mode of teaching and adaptability. Notably, the demand for recorded lectures and tutorials is high, with many students unable to physically attend campus even when in-person class options are available. The recent push for recorded learning materials has rendered successful results, with POLS1006 students achieving course-wide lecture recordings via an email campaign engaging the course convenor. For many of us, being able to access course material out of hours and off campus has never been more urgent, but this is by no means a new challenge faced by students.
Zoe Ranganathan, the ANUSA Disabilities Officer, says that the issue is now being brought into the spotlight as “for the first time the accessibility and recording of course content has started to impact able bodied people”. In addition to students who are disabled, those who have lived experiences of mental illness and those who work to support themselves have long been calling on the ANU to act on its ethos of accessibility. For those who are reluctant to embrace recorded classes, due to a perceived discrepancy in academic quality, Ranganathan contends that there exists a “happy medium between making sure that lectures are accessible to students and also making sure that teachers and academics are able to maintain the greatest academic quality that they can”.
“There needs to be some kind of standardisation of policy across the board, where, for example, there should be a guarantee if you have an education access plan or accessibility requirements, no matter what course you do you should be able to get access to lecture recordings. It’s as basic as that.”
Across the different academic colleges, not all are equal in their willingness and adaptability in adopting more remote learning options. In Ranganathan’s experience, colleges such as the Colleges of Arts and Social Science and Sciences made concerted efforts prior to COVID-19 to make course content more accessible. Furthermore, the College of Sciences have been more successful in approaching remote learning as “they are aware that they are inherently inaccessible in a lot of areas”. Those colleges which traditionally self-identify as prestigious, such as the College of Business and Economics and the College of Law, have been much more reluctant to adapt their modes of teaching, emitting “an aura that it’s not for you if you’re not able bodied”. Colleges such as CBE have made little to no engagement with the Disabilities Officer in this unprecedented time, and “have been very difficult to engage with this year, with some being less adaptable nor willing to change, or to hear our opinions”. Zoe has “had absolutely no correspondence with anyone for the entire year – which is concerning” from the College of Law.
In her discourse with convenors, academic staff, and relevant unions, Ranganathan understands the concern surrounding the introduction of remote learning options as disincentives for students attending lectures in-person, which in turn may have an adverse effect on teacher morale and the in-person learning experience. Although these concerns are valid, the implementation of such punitive approaches directed at a few lazy or disengaged students results in the punishment of those who, due to reasons out of their control, are unable to attend class physically. Instead, she suggests the utilisation of incentives to encourage class attendance where possible, and believes that the quality of lectures will be reflected in the number of attendees. Many academics have reached out to Ranganathan over the course of the first semester, particularly those in Health and Science, in order to engage in meaningful dialogue on course accessibility. Outside of lecture recordings, Zoe believes that remote learning options should also be extended to tutorials and seminars:
“While I understand it has its merits, [tutorial attendance] disadvantages some students that have health conditions. While Education Access Plans can replace the weighting in courses by giving you an alternative assessment, in some courses the experience of a tutorial is really lost, and therefore students who have disabilities overwhelmingly have lower marks even if they have that tutorial mark waived.”
As an alternative, Ranganathan suggests providing a weekly zoom tutorial option to be held out of business hours, so that students who financially support themselves can still work during the day, and won’t have to physically attend campus after hours when it might not be safe. Additionally, a more even distribution of weighting across multiple assessment pieces would better reflect the effort of students who have fluctuating health conditions, mental illnesses, etc – “if their health is not so great one week, it could mean that they fail the course entirely based on one piece of assessment”. Some courses proposed pieces of assessment worth 100% in Semester 1 of 2020, and although this is not permissible due to a contravention with ANU policy, no policy exists “which states that assessments must be capped at a certain weighted percentage”. For Ranganathan , she believes that over the next three years “we should be phasing out high weighted assessments, and try and makes sure that no assessment is over 50% of someone’s grade”.
Although COVID-19 has rendered more students reliant on remote learning options, the need has not been made any greater by the pandemic – “these aren’t new issues, these are issues which those with disabilities have been calling for for ages”.
On the topic of Accessibility, an ANU spokesperson said “ANU is committed to an inclusive work and study environment for all students. The University endeavours to provide recordings of all lectures through the Echo 360 system or via other mechanisms. In semester two, students can also access all our courses remotely. If students are having difficulty accessing lecture recordings we would encourage them to let their course convenor know. Students can also speak with the Associate Deans of Education in their academic colleges, the Dean of Students or their student education representatives. We thank all students for their ongoing patience as we continue to deliver teaching remotely in the face of a global pandemic and strict social distancing measures.”