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The shift to online learning has revealed a concerning double standard

Nationwide, university teaching has had no choice but to move online with students and lecturers alike staying at home to prevent the spread of Covid-19. However, it is unclear whether e-learning is here for the foreseeable future or whether it is just to fill the gap until students can return to university again. 

Recently, Durham University caused a backlash when they suggested introducing online-only degrees, which would reduce the number of modules taught in person during the coming year. Both current and prospective students signed a petition, which garnered over 1000 signatures, arguing that an online degree would not substitute an in-person degree. This makes sense when you consider that many people may not be able to participate in online learning – A National Union of Students survey suggested a fifth of students would struggle to access online learning and more than half felt that they would lack adequate support. 

In many ways, I do think online learning could be beneficial for some people. While many students attend university for the experience of “uni life” (and this is completely valid), surely an online degree could substitute an in-person one from an academic point of view. For example, part-time students or students who work could benefit from being able to complete online modules.

As somebody with mental health problems, as well as a disability, I feel disappointed by how easily online learning was being implemented once it was necessary for other students

As somebody with mental health problems as well as a disability, I feel disappointed by how easily online learning was implemented once it was necessary for other students. Throughout my first year at Warwick, I often spoke to my disability mentor about how difficult it was for me to attend lectures; not only do they require a huge amount of energy to attend, which I often don’t have, but they’re stressful and crowded. I was reassured that many students like me faced the same challenges, but as most of my lectures weren’t put online, I didn’t have much choice other than to attend them or risk falling behind on content. When you’re facing additional challenges, sometimes you have to take the easy way out, even if it means you won’t do as well as the other students on your course.

However, as many disabled activists have pointed out, there are obvious double standards at play here.  According to Higher Education Student Statistics, over 300,000 known disabled students were attending higher education as of 2018. Even more university students will suffer from a mental illness with around 33% experiencing a serious psychological issue with which they require professional help and even more reporting that they experience anxiety, abuse substances to cope, and think about self-harm.

Looking to the future, I hope for a fusion of both in-person and online learning… neither extreme is perfect and will suit everyone

While disabled and mentally ill students are likely to struggle more with attending in-person seminars and lectures, we haven’t previously been accommodated for this. For example, Durham may have raised controversy when they moved their classes online, but did you know that they have strict penalties and will ‘chase up’ any students who miss lectures or seminars?

The abrupt shift to online learning and alternative exam measures, however, shows that universities are more than capable of adapting their courses to fit our needs. Yet, until a majority of students needed it, it was seen as unnecessary. As Piers Wilkinson, who is the disabled students officer at the National Union of Students points out: disabled students have been asking for nationwide Lecture Capture for years but many universities have been slow to do so, and those who have have not made it accessible and inclusive. 

However, online learning does have its limits. I would argue the main flaw is that universities are allowed to decide what constitutes an adequate online learning module. Many first-year students have expressed dissatisfaction online with Warwick’s Online Learning Certificate, arguing that not only was it not worth the money but that they could learn the skills taught in the course elsewhere for free. Personally, I was so baffled by the first task (sending in a picture of our ‘workspace’), I was immediately confused as to what the university had spent so many weeks ‘working on’, as they kept telling us via email.

And it should be noted that just as some students struggle with in-person learning and others don’t, the same can be said for online learning

It should also be noted that just as some students struggle with in-person learning and others don’t, the same can be said for online learning. It has been widely broadcast that students across the nation are struggling to stay motivated under lockdown, especially with the lack of support from universities. As previously stated, online learning isn’t a fair playing field when some people have better equipment and easier access. Largely, those who are already disadvantaged are the ones that are going to fall behind if degrees go entirely online.

Looking to the future, I hope for a fusion of both in-person and online learning. As with many things, neither extreme is perfect and will suit everyone. Hopefully, landing somewhere in the middle means that it will at least benefit some students. In the meantime, if you’re a first year, don’t forget to send in a picture of your workspace to Warwick – your tuition fees are paying for that online certificate.

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