UniMelb online learning transition leaves students and staff without support

20 March 2020
Several students wearing face masks sit in the Old Quad.

The University of Melbourne is transitioning away from face-to-face learning to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, but moving classes online is creating problems for students and staff.

On March 16, the University announced lectures and tutorials with over 500 students were required to cease face-to-face teaching by the following day. Classes with over 25 students but fewer than 500 will need to be online-only by March 30.

The Faculty of Arts said all classes will go online by March 23, regardless of numbers.

This is causing significant stress for Arts student Nour Altoukhi, who’s unsure if she’ll still be able to graduate this semester.

She was told one of her subjects, Digital Media Research, would not be able to go online. The subject coordinator said licensing issues would not allow students to use the software necessary for the subject from their own computers.

“[The subject staff] are trying to accommodate, but they seem so panicked and confused themselves,” Altoukhi said.

Nour Altoukhi sitting on a couch with her laptop open.

The subject coordinator advised students in an email to consider withdrawing from the subject, but said the subject will continue to run tutorials in-person “until we are told that the campus is being shut down”. This is despite the Faculty of Arts saying all classes must go online.

In an email to Farrago, Dean of Arts Russell Goulbourne said, “Our aim as a Faculty is to move all subjects online … However, we are realising that, for a variety of reasons, a small number of subjects cannot be delivered using solely technology-enabled means.

“We intend to continue to offer these subjects face-to-face on campus, respecting the University’s current policy on on-campus teaching, which is itself informed by the guidance of the Australian and Victorian governments about physical distancing.”

If campus shuts down entirely and the subject is cancelled, Altoukhi wouldn’t be able to complete her major requirements to graduate this semester. The subject is one of only two level three Media and Communications subjects offered in semester one, and she has two left for her course.

Altoukhi is an international student, and her visa expires in the middle of the year. Renewing her visa would require her to pay an additional fee, and extending her study would violate the terms of the scholarship she relies on to help fund her tuition and living costs.

“It seems like they’re asking me to withdraw, or defer, or take a leave of absence, but that’s not viable for me. We need a way around that,” she said.

It’s unclear what will happen if subjects have to be cancelled after the University’s census date on 31 March. From this date, students are liable for paying their subject fees, which for undergraduate arts subjects is $835 for domestic students and $4,228 for internationals.

Meanwhile, online learning for students stuck overseas is posing different problems.

Students enrolled in the Master’s level subjects Audio Journalism and International Traditions in Journalism received an email saying that while both subjects would go online, students still in China should withdraw from the subjects.

The email said this is because the classes “will be discussing topics that may be considered sensitive and may pose risks for students”.

This transition to online learning is a massive task for the University’s teaching staff.

Ben Kunkler is the Campaigns and Communications Officer for the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) Victorian branch.

He said the UniMelb NTEU branch supports the University’s decision to move classes online, but said staff are concerned about the feasibility of teaching online and meeting quality standards.

“We’ve got serious concerns about the possibility of putting teaching online, and we’re not sure how it’s going to work,” Kunkler said.

Following a rally organised by the NTEU on Monday, the University agreed to give paid sick leave to casual staff required to self-isolate. In a video posted to the NTEU’s Facebook, Kunkler said the University has agreed to pay casual staff for any additional hours they spend transitioning classes online.

Kunkler told Farrago the University hasn’t been transparent with staff or the NTEU about what will happen if there is an entire campus shutdown.

“The staff are coming to the NTEU because they’re not getting information from the University, and that’s only adding to their panic.”

A University spokesperson told Farrago that faculties are supporting staff during the transition. They also said students should regularly visit the student advice and support page, and students in need of assistance should contact Stop 1.

The University announced yesterday that a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member visited the School of Population Health building at 207-221 Bouverie Street, Carlton, on 13 March.

According to the University, all people who’ve had contact with the staff member have been informed and told to self-isolate. The building will remain closed until Monday.

The University has faced backlash from students, staff, and members of the public for keeping many classes face-to-face despite the declaration of a pandemic and this announcement.

The most liked comment – at the time of publication – on the University’s Facebook post announcing the positive case, reads: “‘Students are at the heart of everything we do’ *stays open during a pandemic*”.

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