Flexibility in a time of Covid

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Remote learning presented many challenges during the pandemic, however the flexibility it offered was beneficial for many students. Simon Dobey investigates the degree of flexibility present in the reopening of UCD, in light of Covid-19.

The beginning of the global pandemic ushered in an entirely new era of education for students of all ages. Overnight, the education system as we knew it was turned on its head. Universities, as well as secondary and primary schools were forced to radically overhaul teaching and grading. In spite of the tremendous mental anguish faced by many students as a result of the rapid and unforeseen changes, distanced learning had its benefits. This was particularly true for students with issues relating to accessibility, many of whom may welcome an option to attend classes remotely this year. 

In-person classes are returning, but there is no doubt that this year will bring its own set of challenges. Reports which filtered out of schools just a week after reopening have given some inclination into the scale of the challenge re-opening third level institutions presents. On the 7th of September, the HSE reported that 14,000 schoolchildren were restricting their movements. On that same date, 809 primary schools and 520 secondary schools had reported cases of Covid-19. Although incidence rates among the 19-24 age group are falling, the 19-24 age group maintains the highest incidence rate of any age group in the country, at 977.3 100,000, as per data released the 2nd of September. So what then is being done to continue to provide access to classes for students should they catch Covid?

“In spite of the tremendous mental anguish faced by many students as a result of the rapid and unforeseen changes, distanced learning had its benefits”

Speaking to the University Observer, UCD’s Students Union Education Officer, Aoife Bracken, said that recorded lectures will be offered “as a way to manage Covid but also something that the university is using to supplement students' learning, rather than as an alternative to coming to campus.” According to UCDSU Welfare Officer Molly Greenough, lecturers will be required to record lectures if they are going to be attended by two-hundred and fifty students or more, which is a Covid related measure taken by the university. However, due to issues relating to the intellectual property rights of lecturers and their contractual agreements with UCD, they cannot be forced to upload recordings of lectures or classes. 

When asked whether the Students Union was aware of a mechanism by which recorded lectures could be uploaded, without the risk of the material being disseminated and intellectual property rights being infringed, Aoife Bracken said that it is something that “management is working on that and it's something that they are very acutely aware of.” Molly Greenough insisted that the Students Union and modules registrar have both strongly encouraged lecturers to upload recordings of classes and that smaller lecture theatres, below the two-hundred and fifty threshold have been retrofitted with recording equipment, so should lecturers wish to upload class material the option is available. 

Miriam Hamilton, the Deputy Secretary General of IFUT (Irish Federation Of University Teachers) told the Observer that members of UCD’s IFUT branch had raised concerns and that the issue was discussed “extensively” at committee level. She added that “UCD has foregone claiming copyright at the moment during the current crisis.”

The Students Union has been in contact with students who “have heard that there are going to be issues within their schools, with regards to (uploading) recorded lectures.” Aoife Bracken is urging any student who encounters issues with regards to lecturers or specific schools who do not want to offer lecture recordings to notify the Students Union as soon as possible. The Students Union contacted college president, Andrew Deeks, to ask “if there had been any concentrated push back from any particular schools or lecturers” in relation to recorded lectures. “At the time (Andrew Deeks) said that he did not receive a massive pushback on lecture recording when he was kind of expecting it.”

According to Bracken, if a student is required to self-isolate and is therefore unable to attend classes, for which a proportion of the grade is based on attendance and participation, that student will be required to seek extenuating circumstances - As had been the case prior to Covid. There will be no special allowances from the University due to a positive coronavirus test or as a result of being a close contact. 

Lecturers and teachers tend to be more at risk of becoming seriously ill after catching Covid-19 than the majority of the student population, due to their age. Speaking in relation to the concerns of teachers and lecturers about returning to in person classes and teaching a higher risk age cohort, Molly Greenough, said “we all understand the frustrations of lecturers and the trade unions, and we do stand with them.” “We fully (support) lecturers walking out of class if students are not adhering to public health guidelines. At the end of the day everyone’s safety is the priority.” Aoife Bracken went on to say that “we are happy to work with lecturers and the trade unions as much as possible, as long as we feel that the interests of students are being best represented.”

“Due to issues relating to the intellectual property rights of lecturers and their contractual agreements with UCD, they cannot be forced to upload recordings of lectures or classes”

Miriam Hamilton outlined some of the concerns of IFUTs members. She cited the fact that there are no upper limits on attendance in lecture halls, unlike other universities, and that there are no social distancing requirements in lecture halls as factors which increase the risk of catching Covid for both students and teachers. She has called on UCD to ensure each classroom is risk assessed, by ensuring physical distancing, the use of C02 monitors and by ensuring adequate ventilation. 

According to Aoife Bracken, while the Students Union is “often frustrated with the last minute decision making” from college management, they understand that the college does not want what happened last year to happen again. “They had plans in place and at the last minute had to very quickly reverse, so that's why there has been a delay in communication.”

Molly Greenough added that the Students Union has been advocating a position in favour of lecture recordings for the past three or four years. “While obviously there are issues with intellectual property and (contractual agreements) we really welcome the accessibility benefits that lecture recordings can bring. Whether that is for traditional disabilities or access issues like work, childcare or a long distance commute. In my eyes I can really only see benefits from continuing to roll it out.”