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Grades, mental health suffering as U of A lets online learning standards slip, says student union

The quality of remote learning at the University of Alberta has slipped to unjustifiable lows and immediate action is needed to help students complete the term, says the president of the student union. 

'Students are furious and frustrated,' student union president says

Concerns from students include old lectures and inappropriate use of exam proctoring. (David Bajer/CBC)

The quality of remote learning at the University of Alberta has slipped to unjustifiable lows and immediate action is needed to help students complete the term, says the president of the student union. 

"Students are furious and frustrated that the quality of education we have paid for has not been delivered in the last three weeks," said Rowan Ley, University of Alberta Students' Union president.

Virtual lectures and online exams have been challenging since the pandemic's start but this term has been particularly problematic with basic standards not being met, Ley said. 

"We've seen issues like unauthorized, highly invasive and discriminatory online proctoring … and a lack of accessibility measures being taken for students who are stuck in other time zones or have weak internet access, by no fault of their own," Ley said. 

Among the wide-ranging list of financial and academic concerns cited in a Wednesday news release, the student union said some faculties were posting old lectures online. 

"Students are upset about paying hundreds of dollars per course just to watch years-old YouTube clips without class engagement," it said. 

The news release also included 13 proposals to help alleviate concerns. 

Complaints under review

Steven Dew, provost and university vice-president, said in a statement that his office is reviewing the complaints and encouraged students to seek out existing supports. 

"The Dean of Students Office offers many supports and resources to help students navigate remote learning successfully, and can work with students to resolve concerns or challenges with their courses," Dew said.

The student union did a survey between Jan. 25 and 31 after fielding numerous student complaints about the winter term. It got responses from 1,238 students. 

Online proctoring, exam anxieties 

About one-quarter of respondents said they are expected to attend midterm exams in person, even though classes will be online until Feb. 28. The student union wants the university to clarify the situation.

Students who don't live in Edmonton should not be asked to travel to the city for a single exam, Ley said. 

Immediate action needed, says Rowan Ley, president, University of Alberta Students’ Union. (Submitted by Rowan Ley)

Students also want the university to address internet connectivity issues — including how connection failures during exams will be handled — and ensure all lectures are  recorded.

The most pressing concern is the use of online proctoring, Ley said. 

Proctoring programs, such as Smart Exam Monitoring and Exam Lock, are only supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances and with the dean's approval. Ley said that policy is not being enforced.

The programs run in the background of students' computers while they write tests, monitoring movement to flag anything that could be a sign the student is cheating.

Student representatives have cited concerns about e-proctoring since last May, saying the programs flag things as simple as small noises or people walking in the background of the camera's view. 

"The university has demonstrated that they are not able to enforce the rules that they have made, and so it's time for them to ban it in all cases, except those where there is absolutely no choice," Ley said. 

In a statement to CBC, a spokesperson for the university said the school "recognized a need to hold some essential examinations (midterms) and experiential learning components in-person prior to February 28 in order to facilitate program progression and course completion, and to maintain academic integrity."

The exams will follow all health measures and students will have at least two weeks notice after a faculty review, the school said. 

'Deeply frustrating'

Ley said academic performance and mental health of students are suffering.

"This is a deeply frustrating situation," Ley said. "Online learning at U of A is not a substitute for our in-person education, but it does not have to be this bad." 

Dew said the university will return to in-person instruction on Feb. 28, when the risk of Omicron is expected to have subsided. 

"Returning to in-person classes after reading week offers the most certainty to our community, and time for everyone to adequately plan for their return," Dew wrote.

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