Uni clarifies stance on online learning after students kick up a fuss

The University of Otago has moved to reassure students it will do all it can to ensure they can continue their studies throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, including helping those stuck outside Dunedin.

No guarantees are offered that all students returning home will be able to carry on with online learning once restrictions ease if they are stranded while others have returned to class.

"There is a remote but real risk that we may not have the resources to deliver all of our several hundred papers online as well as face to face and, in the spirit of openness, we wanted students to be aware of this now," acting vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson said yesterday.

Her message had been more blunt the previous day, when she warned students online learning and exams were not a given for people who got stuck in other parts of the country.

That prompted the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) to question the university’s planning for changes in Covid alert levels and to urge the institution to make sure students could continue learning safely at home, "wherever they are".

The association met university management yesterday morning and the acting vice-chancellor subsequently clarified her stance.

Prof Nicholson raised the possibility Auckland might be in Alert Level 4 while Dunedin was in Alert Level 2, when students could return to class.

"In that situation, we will do all we can to support these students stuck in higher alert levels to continue their study."

Support would also extend to students who had compromised immunity and those who were parents or essential workers, she said.

About 75% of students in residential colleges and university-provided accommodation have so far remained there since Tuesday’s announcement New Zealand was headed for Alert Level 4 lockdown.

At University College, 224 of 530 students were still at the college as of yesterday morning.

The initial warning to students considering returning home was among a series of messages in a statement about Covid-19 and Prof Nicholson said it had resulted in some confusion.

Teaching and assessment would be carried out online until campuses returned to Alert Level 2, or Alert Level 1 for first-year health science students.

"When this happens, we will resume face-to-face teaching, not least because all of our comprehensive surveying following last year’s lockdown and delivery of online teaching has indicated the majority of students would prefer this."

Prof Nicholson said providing both online and face-to-face teaching increased the burden on academic and professional staff, but the university would do its best to support all its students.

OUSA had raised concerns about the university’s warning adding to the stress of students who were headed home, but association president Michaela Waite-Harvey said yesterday she was now confident effective communication had been established with university leadership.

grant.miller@odt.co.nz

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