Commentary, Opinion

Online learning must prioritize accessibility

Like many students, I found myself returning home before the end of the Winter 2020 semester. Recognizing that these unique circumstances presented an opportunity, I decided to enroll in courses during the summer semester. This was both a wise idea and a horrible one. Having never been to my parents’ new home—a supposedly temporary apartment—I quickly discovered that my new bed was a couch, and my accommodation was the living room. Yet, I pressed on with the courses, wanting the credits, and discovered exactly what many are experiencing now; remote, online learning presents a unique set of accessibility barriers that McGill must help students adjust to.

For myself, these challenges included dogs barking in the background, taking final exams tucked away in the closet, and stressing as our erratic wifi turned off, and on, and then off again. Add to this mix ADHD, a small handful of physical illnesses, and bickering with my family, and it presented a potent cocktail of unfortunate circumstances, all of which came together to impact my learning experience. While the McGill student body may not be experiencing exactly what I did, accessibility issues are a broad enough category to affect many students, from financial issues to health.

Affordability remains a large barrier in the way of accessibility. For example, wireless capabilities and secure housing are necessary for a stable learning environment, but some lack the former at home, while the latter can be jeopardized by evictions and a lack of income that have resulted due to COVID-19. Even for students with a home, the size of their residence can influence their academics. I had to sit in a closet for any chance of peace and quiet while taking the final exams for both my winter and summer semester, and I could still hear the voices of my parents who were working from home. This profoundly affected my concentration. 

Similarly, American students attempting to return to Montreal also face barriers at the Canada-U.S. border, as often even those with housing arrangements are turned away. This forces parents and students to gamble on the decision to come to Montreal without assurance that they will be admitted, which many parents who post frequently on the McGill International Parent Community Facebook page have reported.

Disabilities and health complications also pose unique challenges to accessibility when it comes to remote learning. Automated speech recognition, such as closed captioning on lecture recordings, can be inaccurate, leaving deaf students who rely on such resources behind. Appointments at the Student Wellness Hub are solely for those residing in Montreal, leaving both international students and other Canadians without support. 

Finances and disabilities can often intersect. While the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) has compiled a large list of frequently asked questions, their efforts only go so far. For example, the OSD cannot pay for better internet access, but they can certainly attempt to assist with technical issues by contacting professors to request extra time for assignments. Students may not even be able to afford to get medical documentation that will allow them to register with the OSD, as fees may present too great a barrier. These issues are further compounded by the significant effects that the pandemic has had on the labour market, with roughly half of all Quebec businesses having had to lay off employees.

This pandemic has exposed deep flaws in McGill’s efforts to advance accessibility, and we must demand the administration to do better. Even simple changes such as better communication and funding note-takers and closed caption editors can do a world of good for many students who need support during this time.

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