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Photo: Bridget Coady/Fulcrum

A closer look at academic rights students have for the fall term

In March, universities across the country took preemptive measures and shut down in-person learning due to the threat posed by COVID-19. Students, professors, and administrative staff alike were thrown into a state of disarray, not knowing how to proceed with the rest of the semester when the vast majority of the courses underway had elements of teaching or assessment that required students to be physically present. 

From March through April, students were met with conflicting information, changing expectations, and general uncertainty about the structure of their classes and final exams. Without an online platform robust enough to host the thousands of classes underway during the winter semester, professors were largely left to their own devices to figure out how they should end the semester. 

Some turned to different online video conference platforms to finish the rest of the term’s planned lectures while others scrapped traditional lectures altogether. This state of chaos left students questioning what their academic rights were in these unprecedented circumstances.

New accommodations included a COVID-19 self-declaration form for academic exemptions, a deadline extension for students to drop a course and many faculties eventually offered pass/fail options for their credits. The drastic increase in allegations of fraud during the online spring/summer 2020 semesters also led the University of Ottawa to call on the use of Respondus Lockdown, a controversial proctoring software.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is as present as it was in March, the academic rights and accommodations created in the winter 2020 semester no longer apply.

As the academic accommodations granted during the winter 2020 term were based on the context of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the same exceptions are not being granted when the reality of the situation has not changed.

The Student Academic Success Service, or SASS, has a webpage detailing frequently asked questions relating to COVID-19. Many of the answers are not comprehensive, and direct students to refer to their professors for information.

The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) Student Rights Centre’s director, Mireille Gervais, maintains that “the only specific right that now exists where there was none before is the right to refuse to consent to Respondus, a right to an alternative form of evaluation and or proctoring.”

Carolina Muñoz Jasa, the president of the international, political, and policies studies students’ association, said she would have liked to see students provided with the pass/fail course option for this semester. 

She maintains that with an unfamiliar online interface as well as the greater state of the pandemic, it is “not fair to have the same academic expectations as in-person learning.”

The communications from the faculty have not been up to par either. Muñoz Jasa relayed that there has been no email from the faculty of social sciences outlining students’ rights this semester and no updates on the availability of in-person academic services such as the undergraduate academic office.

“The professor’s union gets to dictate how students are evaluated at this point,” said Muñoz Jasa. She then points out how leaving the ultimate decision making to individual professors may create wildly varied expectations placed upon students. 

Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s advocacy commissioner says this is a difficult issue to confront, as professors are covered under academic freedom as a collective bargaining right, which has been extended to cover a lot of COVID-19 issues. 

Gulliver maintains that to address this, faculties should make “strong pro-student recommendations” and should intervene within their reach to maintain the academic rights of their students. 

Ultimately, Gulliver says that “faculties need to ensure that the quality of online schooling is the same as it was in person.”

Academic Rights

Gervais explains that the pre-existing academic regulations will continue to apply regardless of the move to an online structure, but that as of yet there are no specific senate exemptions for fall 2020.

“It will be a very different semester from winter 2020,” said Gervais.

The academic exceptions granted during the winter 2020 semester were drastic, unprecedented, and “could be described as extreme flexibility.”

The loosened guidelines for exam and assignment deferral, the process for obtaining and getting approval for medical certificates, etc., are not at all in line with the normal structure, which the university has since returned to.

In terms of what the Student Rights Centre would like to see from faculties in regard to accommodations being made this semester, Gervais maintains the measures put in place in the winter 2020 term should not be considered exceptional.

Both Gulliver and Gervais believe that there is a need for the pass/fail option to be offered again. 

There are a myriad of obstacles for students this semester, including professors’ office hours not being as accessible, the possibility of balancing different time zones, folks facing illness, vulnerable people, financial struggles, etc.

Students facing external pressure should mean more accommodations from the university, Gulliver believes there are “so many ideas that can be implemented that would help ease the pressures of the current learning environment.” 

With online school, there are more technological needs that are required of students, including a computer, webcam, and stable wifi. While access to these goods is not an enshrined right by any means, Gervais believes as a principle, it is something to aspire toward.

 “It’s one thing to tell students to pay fees… but this has exceeded any traditional needs that students have required in the past,” said Gervais.

Gulliver echoes many of these sentiments. 

“As long as courses are online there should be a lot of flexibility offered to students given the context of the global pandemic,” he said.

Gulliver understands that the university is concerned about the value of degrees, but thinks it is important to keep in mind the barriers to online learning, negative mental health, and stress that students are subject to at this time. 

This semester’s “grades cannot be reasonably evaluated [without accommodations] in an environment not different from the Winter 2020 term,” said Gulliver.

However, Gulliver acknowledges that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but that we must really insist on flexibility. 

“Faculties need to be proactive in addressing issues, the onus is on the University, especially when students are paying the same fees as they would for an in-person semester,” he said. 

“If there’s a significant change caused by a second wave of COVID-19, it would reflect well on the University if they brought in academic exemptions again.”

Resources

As for resources, the UOSU and the Student Rights Centre are working to make academic rights in this era more easily accessible to students. 

At the Student Rights Centre, there has been an increase in demand, unfortunately not solely about rights, but an increase in academic fraud allegations due to the spring and summer terms being online only. 

Gervais claims that the “speedy implementation of Respondus is directly related to the increase in fraud allegations,” and that the U of O must have taken these steps in implementing Respondus so hastily because of the influx.

What she hopes to leave with students is that the Student Rights Centre’s services are 100 per cent active, their employees are working from home but students should not hesitate to reach out with any needs they may have.

When asked what the biggest concerns for students are this semester, Gulliver said that students need to be aware of their academic rights, and be aware that they can turn to the Student Rights Centre for any questions or concerns.

He is considerate that it is the quality of courses that will have a large impact on academic rights, where professors may not communicate expectations clearly, and the online interface used may cause breaches of student’s rights.

By way of looking to address these issues proactively, a form for complaints related to online learning will be emailed out by the UOSU in the next few days. This will allow the union to take concerns about courses directly to University administration. 

Additionally, the Student Rights Centre is creating “know your rights” presentations that (in both English and French) should be embedded on the website in the coming weeks.