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York's bad lecture capture system is failing students

Disabled students deserve better.

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Image Credit: werbeguru

It struck me, as I was getting out my laptop for the first lecture of my last module here at York, that I’ve never had a semester with every lecture recorded. After three years at the University, you’d think that increasing awareness of disabilities, and the long battles between academic reps and lecturers, would have led to a more systemic change in each department, but in actual fact, uptake for the system is still not completed. The needs of deaf students like me are still being ignored.

That in mind, here I am, once again, trudging my way to the front of the lecture hall to ask politely if any of the module convener’s lectures are available “through other means”. Being deaf shouldn't have to mean extra educational struggle. Deaf students already attend Russell Group universities at about half the rate that our fellow students do. Now I’m here, by way of some sensitive secondary teachers, and a lot of hard work, it would be nice to have my needs properly addressed. Lecture capture is often framed as a way for hungover students to ingest information without having to put pants on, but its more important utility is often overlooked. Namely: its role in giving hard-of-hearing students equal access to the education for which they have been so cheerfully ripped off.

In this context, the argument that lecture capture systems lower attendance rates doesn’t hold water. The systems allow students with disabilities, or working with other engagements (like a job, or, God forbid, a student paper editorship) to maintain the same level of academic progress as their peers. If the same systems allow students to watch lectures in bed over orange juice and some aspirin, that should only be seen as a bonus.

The biggest problem is that the decision on how students with support plans are to be dealt with seems to remain squarely with the module convener (if, indeed, these students are addressed at all). This term, one of my modules will feature selectively muted recordings to ensure Professor Ajala’s work doesn’t reach notoriously sensitive African dictatorial regimes, which is, in my view, rather fair. That said, the other will simply not be recorded at all: presumably Saudi Arabia are just desperate to get their hands on his short summaries of the Copenhagen school.

Last year, the University said, in a policy document, that lecture capture should be a “University-wide” system. This is self-evidently not the case. The same policy document sets out an exemption system where lecturers have to justify any exemptions to the department head, and the chair of the board of studies, which is also not happening. Perhaps it is a surprise to these people that their lecturers are not following this rule.

Of course, the problem is compounded with dyslexic students and people with other educational needs. Here academics had the potential to be surprisingly insensitive. Multiple students told Nouse that they had been handed extra readings by lecturers after their failure to decipher lecture information from the only revisional medium available: the slides. This practise does nothing to student concerns. Lumping students with learning difficulties with more work only entrenches academic inequality.

The attempts at universal lecture capture pushed through by former Academic OfficerJames Hare last year were a promising start to improving the system. For the first time, academics began, begrudgingly, to switch on the system, and acknowledging the realities of a universe where microphones exist. That process is still not yet complete, however, and the practice of ignoring lecture capture requirements remains relatively common, especially within humanities.

Disabled students need oversight of their lecturers to ensure that they are following these rules, and not leaving us by the wayside. The policy needs active enforcement from departmental support staff so that lecture capture becomes the default option, and avoidance the extreme exception. In cases where the academic wants to talk without fear of reprimand, they need to be aware that they can just pause the lecture capture technology, rather than sacking the whole lecture off for the sake of ten minutes of salacious academic gossip.

Of course, we want our lecturers safe, happy, and taking advantage of their freedom of speech, but, as academics, it can be considered rather outside their remit to ensure student support plans are followed to the latter, and it’s no surprise that they are not doing it very well.

Too many are left to make their own interpretation of the University regulations on disabilities. In my second year, this included one instance where a particularly cantankerous Politics speaker covered the microphone with a duffel coat for the entirety of the lecture. His recorded delivery would have all the audiological clarity of a small tuning fork in a wind tunnel.

There are other ways to ensure disabled students get the support they need: podcasts, or better Powerpoint notes, for example. It’s fair to say that disability support is one of York’s genuine strengths, but it lags behind the rest of the Russell group pack (even Cardiff) when it comes to lecture capture.

Departments at this University need to wake up and acknowledge that the system that’s in place is more than just a fad to benefit their lazy pupils. York’s hard-of-hearing community need the lecture capture policy implemented consistently, and fairly.

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