Extending U of A's pandemic exam protocols may hurt students with disabilities, advocates say

Student leaders at the University of Alberta are warning that students with disabilities may be getting an inequitable learning experience as a result of changes in services to assist them.

Several changes affect students who require accommodations, say student leaders

The University of Alberta is undergoing a massive restructuring, with services for students with disabilities affected. (David Bajer/CBC)

Student leaders at the University of Alberta are warning that students with disabilities may be getting an inequitable learning experience as a result of changes in services to assist them.

The U of A's Academic Success Centre provides support to students with disabilities, such as exam accommodations, which can take the form of extra time on a test or the use of adaptive technology or software.

Pre-pandemic, the centre would arrange a space for students to work on exams proctored by a staff member. During the pandemic, it has made do through remote work and relying on professors to supervise the students during test-taking.

But a notice posted online on Aug. 30 says that services will continue to be administered remotely through the fall term, as a result of the ongoing major overhaul of the university's service structure to deal with financial shortfalls. 

Additionally, the centre will not proctor exams until further notice.

"A lot of these changes were very sudden and came out in very quick communication," said Abner Monteiro, vice-president, academic, at the University of Alberta Students' Union.

"And a lot of these changes were inadequate and didn't do a lot for students." 

Online exams have created a lot of anxiety for students and frustration from professors who must take on the workload, Monteiro said. Professors may need to write multiple versions of an exam and juggle monitoring of a classroom of students as well as students requiring accommodations.

Part of the problem is exam-taking software. Programs that track facial movement to ensure academic integrity were used throughout the pandemic for all students as classes and exams were kept online.

"A lot of students who are neurodiverse and may look away while they're writing their exam or don't focus on one specific point were getting flagged for academic violations," Monteiro said.

"We don't want to see those things arise again."

Monteiro said the Students' Union is also pushing for online proctoring to be similar across faculties.

Abner Monteiro says some of the changes to service have been inadequate. (Google Meet)

Talia Dixon, the Students' Union vice-president of student life, has used the centre's services to help with a learning disability that was diagnosed when she was a child.

Dixon said there were serious issues with accommodation services even before the pandemic, which puts the onus on students to go through the process to get accommodations.

She said having professors proctoring exams puts students in a troubling spot.

"What if your professor doesn't do it in a good way? What do you do then? What is your recourse? There isn't one."

Note-taking service ended

In another significant change, a note-taking program — in which students would volunteer to take class notes for students in need of accommodation — has also ended. It has been replaced with an app that records lectures.

Dixon said the software doesn't meet the needs of all students, especially as it doesn't pick up conversations between students and the professor.

"The big issue is — yes, it's proctoring, yes, note-taking — but it's that a lot of the time these students are afterthoughts."

An emailed statement on behalf of Andre Costopolous, the dean of students and vice-provost, said his office had a strong commitment to supporting and facilitating accommodation for all learners at the university.

"We are also working with faculty, departments and faculties to develop universal design solutions that increase accessibility in all areas of the university," it said.

The statement said the office is supporting instructors in designing accommodations and asking instructors to follow the same protocols as last year where appropriate.

The issue was set to be discussed at the university's General Faculties Council on Monday.