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’s transition to online learning to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 is creating a range of issues, students and staff have said.  

Some subjects cannot move online and have hence been cancelled – complicating many students’ course and graduation plans.

Ben Kunkler, a spokesperson for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), said, “We’ve got serious concerns about the possibility of putting teaching online, and we’re not sure how it’s going to work.”
The complications of transitioning to online learning is causing significant stress for Arts student Nour Altoukhi, who is unsure if she will 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 on 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 response to this, Dean of Arts Professor 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.”
Professor Goulbourne said this is still in line with the University’s policy, as well as the recommendations set by the Australian and Victorian governments on physical distancing.
If campus shuts down entirely and the subject is cancelled, Altoukhi will not 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 in 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 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.
A spokesperson for the University said students in need of assistance should contact Stop 1, and students should regularly visit the student advice and support page.
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”.
Lan Wei is a Master of International Journalism student, who had to drop out of the subject International Traditions in Journalism because she is still in China.

Wei said the experience of being stuck overseas during the university semester has been “really stressful”.

When the Australian Government announced no one who had spent the previous 14 days in China could enter Australia, Wei flew to Thailand to wait out the quarantine period. 

“I spent a lot of money on hotels and flights,” she said. 

“I spent 12 days in Thailand … then I read the news announcing that non-Australians couldn’t get into the country at all anymore. I cried that day, and I cried a lot of times after that day. I had to go back to China.”

While Wei had to drop out of International Traditions in Journalism, she was able to enrol in a new subject and can now complete all of her subjects online.
The transition to online learning means students such as Wei can continue studying remotely, but it has been a massive challenge for the University’s teaching staff.
Ben Kunkler is the Campaigns and Communications Officer for the NTEU’s Victoria 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.
A University spokesperson said, “Faculties are working closely with their staff to ensure they are supported as the changes are implemented.”
Following a rally organised by the NTEU on March 16, the University agreed to give paid sick leave to casual staff required to self-isolate. In a video posted to the NTEU’s Facebook, Mr Kunkler said the University has agreed to pay casual staff for any additional hours they spend transitioning classes online.
However, Kunkler said the University had not 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.”

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