Online learning cannot be "good" until it is equal


The Vice-Chancellor's claim that students are "getting a good experience online" is misguided

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By Emily Hewat

Last week, Nouse conducted a poll that showed 80 per cent of 201 students at the University of York do not find their online learning satisfactory. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has experienced online learning, but will be an unwelcome shock to vice-chancellor Charlie Jeffery, who recently stated that “students are getting a good experience online.”

I could have happily devoted this piece to all the things I dislike about online learning: the dodgy Internet connections, awkward breakout room discussions and the endless hours of staring at a screen are something every student can sympathise with. But what angered me most about the vice-chancellor’s statement was the assumption that all students are getting an equal experience. As the only humanities student in my house, I can safely say that we are not.

The format for online learning has admittedly been the same for everyone. This is where the similarities end.
It is difficult watching my housemates attempt to go through this term without their labs and practicals but at least they have the knowledge that any practical element will (fingers crossed) go ahead in the near future and that the University is doing everything they can to offer the practical elements that their degrees need. Meanwhile, my two precious weekly seminars were cut down to only an hour long with no explanation right at the start of term and only a third of them have been in person.

And I am luckier than most. My lecturers have taken the time to create extra question and answer sessions and have run essay workshops to make up for missing all our assessments last year. Many humanities students will not be able to say the same.

Is the University doing everything it can to support students like me? It doesn’t feel like it.

There is of course the argument that humanities subjects do not need to be face-to-face and compared to the contact needed for labs and practicals; this is true. But what the University seems to frequently forget is that humanities students are human beings too. We need human interaction with our lecturers and peers just as much as other students do. I have had a lecturer admit that she feels online seminars do not cover all of the course content as the depth of discussion just isn’t there. When I’m sat alone in my room day after day, trying to find alternatives to all the set books that aren’t available online, it’s hard not to feel frustrated that we will be the last ones to return to face-to-face teaching.

The saddest thing about this lack of equality? As a second year history student, I’m not even surprised that the University is not treating its students equally. I expected it.

We were the students who suffered most from the weeks of strikes last year as humanities lecturers reacted to the unresolved pension debate and issues surrounding job security. Lecturers are more frequently being forced to either sign temporary contracts or change contracts multiple times throughout their careers.

The students with the fewest contact hours were overnight the ones who lost all forms of teaching. If medic students had suddenly lost all their teaching, there would have been an outcry from the University. How could medics take their exams and go on to our future carers if key information had been missed from their education? It would be unacceptable.
And yet it is clearly acceptable in the University’s eyes to treat humanities students that way, seeing as the lecturers’ conditions have not improved and therefore the threat of strikes is still present.

The University will probably think I’m being unfair. They did, after all, offer us compensation. But seeing as, on average, a first year history student will pay £34 per contact hour whilst a first year engineering student pays £12.33, £150-£300 compensation for six weeks of strikes wasn’t exactly welcomed.

Inequality between degrees is clearly a long standing issue at the University and as we face more terms of uncertainty, it is time the University acknowledged that online learning, and indeed learning in general, is not equal. Regardless of the current global situation, every student has the right to feel as though they matter and whilst the University needs to prioritise labs and practicals for face to face contact, humanities students are beginning to feel as though we don’t matter. We are tired of being consistently shoved to the bottom of the list of priorities just because we have less contact hours and need less resources.

Until our online experience is equal, it cannot possibly be considered, as the vice-chancellor believes, “good”.