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Return to in-person lectures causes accessibility problems for students

Alicia Martínez Patiño reports.

The end of COVID-19 restrictions at Oxford University has brought about the return to in-person learning. Students now have to get used to attending lectures in actual theatres and auditoriums instead of their own rooms, which has caused accessibility issues for some.

As we revert back to our pre-pandemic lifestyle, most departments have resumed in-person lectures, but only some of them have resorted to the harsher measure of removing previous  recordings from Canvas, Oxford’s online learning environment. The University’s actions have had various effects on different students and courses.

Instead of a unified strategy, different subjects approach in-person and remote learning in different ways. Cherwell found that some humanities, like History, grant full access to lecture recordings on Canvas. On the other hand, sciences like Chemistry and Biology have most of their lectures in person, but these are recorded, so students are still able to re-watch the material on their own time. Mathematicians have described a “hit-or-miss organisation” of their teaching hours. In principle, classes are generally recorded, but calendars have become unreliable, with some lectures being left out of official schedules, and therefore not  uploaded to Canvas. PPE is one of the most disparate courses, as only Economics recordings are available online, while the Faculty of Philosophy and the Department of Politics organise their lectures exclusively in person.

Quick and effective technological progress might be considered the silver lining of the switch to remote learning after the pandemic, so some are asking why are its positives being overlooked in favour of in-person teaching.

The reasoning behind this is explained by the English Faculty’s statement on the topic. Even though they were available on Canvas at the beginning of the term, English lectures are no longer being uploaded. An exception has been made for those with Student Support Plans, who will be provided with these materials. An official email has been sent to all other students reminding them that they are “not permitted to make recordings of Faculty lectures” even on their own accord. These measures, according to the Faculty, aim to preserve “the interaction between the lecturer and the audience” and to help students develop skills such as “listening” and “notetaking”.

Are students convinced of the benefits of strictly in-person lectures? An English student told Cherwell that the lack of recordings does not help in terms of reaching the work-life balance on which the University places so much importance: “It makes it difficult when there are extracurricular clashes, like sports commitments”. Some students are left to rely on their peers’ willingness to collaborate, which could vary across colleges. “My cohort is nice enough to give lecture notes to anyone who’s missed things, but that’s a privilege that probably doesn’t exist in colleges where it’s more competitive between students,” one student says.

Conversely, a Modern Languages student told Cherwell that having lectures available to watch online helped her organise her day in a way that fits her commitments and schedule. However, she also feels that “going to lectures in person is good for specific topics that [she] is interested in or could benefit from brushing up on”. In any case, she appreciates flexibility.

Another way to look at the matter of lectures is through the eyes of disabled students at Oxford. Returning to full, in-person learning can become an even bigger change for those with a disability. Mobility issues are just one of the many possible obstacles, and different circumstances can pose serious difficulties in travelling to or attending lectures. Being asked about this, one student considers the removal of lectures from Canvas very challenging: “While I have permission to record lectures, I’m expected to physically go and do this myself, which, in my mind, entirely defeats the point. I can’t record it myself if I’m suffering symptoms or at the doctor, but no option exists for anyone else to record it for me.”

The benefits of keeping lectures online were clear from examining students’ experiences and personal circumstances – from disabilities to time-management. Even an Oxford study has recently highlighted the benefits of remote learning as a tool to familiarise ourselves with the digital realm. The University seems, however, to be set on discarding most of the advances that COVID-19 was able to push us into adopting.

A University of Oxford spokesperson told Cherwell: “Oxford recognises that some students will have particular requirements in regard to how they best access on-course learning materials.  A wide range of individual adjustments and study support is therefore available for disabled students, through personalised Student Support Plans via the Disability Advisory Service. Additionally, we have published our first Educational Recordings Policy, which recognises that publishing recordings to supplement in-person teaching can support learning by enabling students to review and revisit material. It also explains that lecture recordings in particular are a significant step forward in making teaching more inclusive for disabled students. Departments take this into consideration when deciding what recordings to make available, alongside the suitability of recordings for specific subjects, topics and approaches to teaching.  Despite the return to in-person teaching, Panopto usage at Oxford remains more than double that of 2019. Given the prevalence of recordings, students are encouraged to find out how to make the most of recorded lectures to enhance their study strategies.”

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