Zoom University threatens to leave students behind

During the last two weeks, students were welcomed back to a McGill that no one had ever seen before. Across time zones throughout Canada and around the world, frantic searching for class locations was replaced with anxious scrambling for Zoom links as students and academic staff struggled to adapt to the realities of remote course delivery. Despite the notable efforts of many professors, teaching assistants, and other instructors to prepare for the online semester, students have experienced issues that should alarm educational staff. Inconsistencies in regulations on course delivery methods have sowed widespread frustration and confusion. From onerous assessment procedures to unusual departures from normal class scheduling, these inconveniences caused by remote delivery are rapidly mutating into an accessibility issue. McGill must act now to address these concerns and work to ensure that its policies are more equitable, responsive, and accessible to students.

Aside from a handful of Zoom town halls, students have been left to make sense of the vague descriptions contained in emails sent via Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Fabrice Labeau’s listserv alone. Assessment policies vary widely at the departmental level, and with different conference and lab facilitation formats, scheduling has become a nightmare for some students who have had to account for these discrepancies in their planning. Moreover, many professors have been uploading lecture recordings outside of scheduled course times, further complicating matters. Some have also exceeded the allotted time for their lectures while others have uploaded lectures as little as half as long as a normal one. 

Such inconsistencies have only added further confusion and stress to the already strained circumstances of remote learning. Some professors have mandated—or structured their courses as to nearly necessitate—attendance in conferences, notwithstanding McGill’s policies designed to accommodate students living in different time zones. Professors are not to blame for these problems, however: They stem from misunderstandings resulting from poor communication between faculty, administrators, and other academic staff. Clear articulation to students and staff alike of the policies currently in effect is evidently necessary.

It is imperative that students no longer be left in the dark, especially as plans for the winter semester are finalized. Whether online or in person, McGill is paid for in great part by student tuition dollars. In fact, considering that McGill has not reduced tuition this year, despite the online format, and that international students’ tuition has actually increased, consulting students and clearly communicating operations ought to be the bare minimum. 

Broader accessibility concerns are even more prohibitive. Students who require accommodations through the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), for example, are particularly vulnerable to falling behind with coursework. Consequently, services such as those provided by OSD Note Takers are more critical than ever. Students were calling for McGill to compensate note-takers fairly before the pandemic. For McGill to continue to ignore their demands now, when their work is so obviously essential, would be careless and disgraceful. 

Of course, internet inaccessibility and distracting or unstable home environments remain equally formidable barriers to students this semester. Instructors must be cognizant of these obstacles and accommodate students experiencing such difficulties. But the onus is on faculty administrations to responsibly guide their students and staff. And while clear communication of policies and plans is important, it alone is not a solution. Nor is hiring students to help facilitate remote instruction, though this may be helpful, because many of these problems extend beyond technical difficulties. McGill should consider reinstating the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) option for all courses, as was done at the end of the Winter 2020 semester. Above all, McGill must make an effort to prevent misunderstandings by coordinating departmental guidelines and enforcing scheduling structures.

At the same time, students must recognize professors and staff who are taking measures to combat these problems. McGill’s librarians, for instance, should be commended for using software such as HathiTrust to make print resources available to students around the world. Through mutual compassion and diligent communication, the McGill community can navigate the online semester. A return to any semblance of McGill as we once knew it can only be assured through effective solutions to the problems already apparent from the last two weeks, and the entire McGill community should be united with this goal in mind.

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