Anger and frustration were expressed by both students and faculty during a four-hour-long General Faculties Committee meeting focused on issues surrounding online learning.
Issues with online learning took centre stage at the General Faculties Committee (GFC) meeting, which is the highest academic governing body at the University of Alberta, on January 25. Concerns about online proctoring software being inaccessible, racist, and ableist, alongside a general lack of support from professors and administration, were all brought up by various GFC student representatives.
Though this is the first time it’s being discussed at GFC, this is not the first time students have voiced these concerns. Last semester, the Students’ Union addressed concerns with online proctoring in a statement to the university.
Similarly, the International Student Association (ISA) put out an open letter outlining how international students are waking up at night to attend classes and how online proctoring doesn’t work in areas with variable electricity availability. Currently, the ISA has created an anonymous reporting form where international students can report classes that are not being recorded.
Issue ignored for too long by administration, says SU vice-president academic
David Draper, the Students’ Union vice-president (academic), started the discussion by expressing his frustration with how long it took this issue to reach GFC.
He also cited how the first hour of GFC was spent on technical difficulties with Zoom and approving the agenda, which he believes took time away from students to discuss this issue.
“I’m not sure if this is off to a good start and I’m honestly quite disappointed that an issue like this, which should take priority, has taken this long to get to, both in this meeting and in this university as a whole,” he said.
Draper went on to describe how issues with online learning mostly affect marginalized students, students with disabilities, and students who parent. He connected those adverse experiences with the university’s Discrimination, Harassment, and Duty to Accommodate policy.
“This is more than just a conversation about a few hiccups with online learning,” he said. “These are a lot of systemic issues that are directly and disproportionally affecting any students within those categories [protected in that policy].”
Online proctoring was one of the key issues brought up by Draper, who described the service as discriminatory to students of colour, students who are neurodivergent, lower-income students and those who parent.
He also pointed out that online proctoring is not a good way to test students and many post-secondary institutions across Alberta have stopped using it.
Though students may be able to speak to professors if they are unable to use the service, Draper said this option is not sound enough and this responsibility should not fall on the shoulders of each professor.
Draper also discussed time zone differences and participation marks as an issue many international students face that, like online proctoring, have yet to be formally addressed by administration.
“I frankly believe it’s unfair and unjust to our student population…. as a student and member of GFC, I’m disappointed nothing has been done.”
Francine Zhou, a fifth-year secondary education student, used an analogy to illustrate the lack of action from administration.
“The work of anti-racism shouldn’t solely be done by the ones who are oppressed, just like how the quality of our education should not be left to students or professors as individuals to fix,” they said.
Zhou also went on to explain that many individual professors have expressed that despite their desire to make things more flexible for students, institutional guidelines prevent them from doing so.
“Having a relatively short time for professors to assess our projects is not only impacting us as students, but is impacting the professors who really want to accommodate students.”
Students and faculty clash over online learning concerns
Katie Kidd, the Students’ Union vice-president (student life), said she was proud of the ISA for creating their own anonymous reporting form for unrecorded classes, but was angry that it was students who took the issue into their hands.
“Where was the university reaching out to their students,” she asked. “Where was the care for these students and their opinions and their problems from the university?”
Later in the meeting, Kidd added that despite the fact that the pandemic is hard for everyone, professors are paid to be there while students pay to attend university.
“I won’t be able to get over that basic fact to be kind right now or to speak with a lot of love for the community because honestly, it’s pretty pathetic in my eyes,” she said.
Kidd went on to say that is is “problematic” that professors are asking students for the solutions to these problems when she was interrupted by a point of order from an unidentified faculty member who said Kidd’s comments were inappropriate.
“I respect the students’ voices and opinions, but I do feel uncomfortable in the way they are being expressed at the moment,” the faculty member said.
“I’m sorry that you feel uncomfortable by me asking you to do your job,” Kidd responded.
Talia Dixon, a fourth-year women’s and gender studies and political science student, used her speaking turn to discuss some of the mental health challenges her and fellow students have experienced.
She specifically highlighted that a lot of students’ mental health challenges stem from interactions with professors.
“I’ve heard from every one of my friends that they are struggling with their mental health in incomparable ways and a lot of that is due to the fact that there is a severe lack of compassion on the behalf of their professors to what students are going through,” they said.
Before Dixon could continue, english and film studies associate professor Carolyn Sale interrupted with a point of order to say that she did not agree with Talia’s statement.
“We’ve just heard something deeply deplorable said about professors,” she said. “I just want to remind everybody that it is our responsibility as members of this forum not to either impute intention to other members of the forum or to make that kind of remark where an entire group is somehow tarred.”
“I personally take objection to that remark and I’m guessing others do.”
Dixon responded that she wasn’t trying to generalize professors, but was rather highlighting the experiences of students.
“I wasn’t speaking directly to any professor in this group — I’ve had many professors who have been wonderful throughout this,” she said. “However, I am a student representative and I do need to speak to what students are telling me. This isn’t me trying to bad mouth anyone, this is me verbatim saying things that I have been told by dozens of students and I think a lot of students feel that there is a lack of compassion.”
Kathleen Lowrey, an associate professor of anthropology, brought taxpayers into the discussion, saying the university owes taxpayers competent students who are evaluated in a reliable way.
“When you hire an engineer out of the U of A, the bridges that engineer builds doesn’t fall over because we had to give them a radically compassionate test,” she said.
She said many students have expressed the sentiment that they pay professors salaries, but Lowrey pointed out that the university is also fuelled by the “tremendous generosity” of Canadian and Albertan taxpayers.
“We have a very serious responsibility to them as teachers and as students that the training, research, and educating that they’re paying for — that they can trust its products.”
Multiple students interrupted Lowry with points of orders and Draper informed Lowry that students also pay taxes.
“Hello, I pay taxes,” Draper said after Lowrey continued her speaking turn.
“So do I,” Lowrey responded.
Throughout the meeting, student representatives asked professors to show “radical compassion” for students. Ricardo Acuña, the president of the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) said students should show the same for professors.
“I really appreciate the use of the word radical compassion, but my concern is that the people who have used the term radical compassion are asking for it and not really showing it,” he said. “We’re talking about professors and instructors who’s workload, in every instance, has increased. We’re talking about instructors who, as I speak, are losing support in their departments because of budget cuts and lay-offs. They have less support and more work.”
“We’re also talking about instructors who happen to be home-schooling, who happen to have children, who happen to have parents who are elderly and need caring for.”
He went on to emphasize that he believes the university should invest in resources that benefit both student and staff.
“Let’s ensure that if we’re going to have this conversation, we’re having it where we are prepared to invest the resources necessary to not only prioritize the health, wellness, and equity vis-a-vis students, but also in terms of instructors.”
Faculty acknowledge student issues, share difficulties with online teaching
Alongside the heated exchanges taking place, many members of GFC were understanding to the challenges both staff and faculty are facing.
Pierre-Yves Mocquais, the dean of Campus Saint-Jean, apologized to students for not foresseing these issues.
“I’m sorry as the dean of Campus Saint-Jean,” he said. “I think that I owe you, as one of the leaders of the university, an apology for not taking this situation more seriously from the very start.”
Though he believes the budget cuts and the shift to online learning has also been difficult for faculty, Mocquais said the university should have addressed students’ concerns earlier.
“Despite that, I want to once again extend an apology because we should have come to this realization collectively as an institution sooner.”
Roger Moore, a physics professor, said he understood the students’ concerns, but also highlighted a learning curve he believes many professors are having.
“I do understand we owe the students an excellent standard of education, but with a change like this, I would ask for some patience and understanding from students as well.”
Opposite to Draper’s comments on online proctoring, Moore said that online proctoring is a tool that large classes may need to maintain academic integrity, as this was an issue he faced when not using it.
“We tried many ways to reduce this as much as possible, but when you have these large first-year courses where the questions are very simple and easily looked up, it is very difficult to do anything else than remote proctoring,” he said.
Dan Romanyk, an engineering assistant professor, said he tries to meet with students as much as he can to accommodate different time zones. However, when he talks with students about how to deliver his courses, he ends up with a large variety of answers.
“There’s this huge range [in answers] we’re getting back and as much as we’d love to accommodate everyone, we have limited bandwidth,” he said. “We are trying our best — at least most of us are— to deliver what we can under the circumstances.”
He believes that a set of guiding principles for both professors and students should be created to address the variability he sees.
“What can students reasonably expect from their instructional staff to really aid in their learning,” he asked. “As instructors, what can we reasonably be expected to do, but also what can we reasonably expect from students?’
Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell, the dean of the faculty of science, said that the professors and administration in her faculty have been working since the summer to address student wellness and health during online learning.
“I want to assure everyone that we have been dealing with this since May in the faculty of science,” she said. “Even though it seems like it’s taken us six months to get to this point, there are faculty members and staff members who have been working really tirelessly from the start of the pandemic on this issue.”
According to Kalcounis-Rueppell, the faculty of science has been dealing with these online learning issues on a case to case basis, and will continue to do so.
“It’s an absolute priority for me and for the faculty.”
Harnoor Kochar, a fourth-year political science student, said that this discussion shouldn’t be professors versus students, but rather both should hold administration accountable.
“As students, and I know this because of conversations I’ve had with my peers, we very much recognize the duress that professors are in and we also want them to be part of creating a process that benefits them,” she said.
“[The conversation] is shaping into a professor needs versus students’ needs, but the onus is actually on faculty leadership and administration to address this systemic issue by raising awareness around resources available to students and by creating and implementing student-centred course delivery and assessment mechanisms — and to do so quickly.”