The virtual student: How university has changed for the COVID-19 Cohort

Distance learning has become the new normal, but beyond the positives disabled students have also experienced new hurdles. One student shares his experience of going from the campus to behind the screen.

Rhys

Rhys Brown is in his second and final year of his LLM (Masters of Law) at a College in UoL (University of London). Initially starting learning on campus in October 2019, Rhys, who has epilepsy, has experienced both aspects of learning virtually and on campus. However, it was the draw to on campus learning that Rhys was most looking forward to.

After being diagnosed with epilepsy, Rhys left secondary education without any GCSEs or A Levels. Eventually Rhys obtained qualifications from The Open University, experts in distance learning, and at the age of 24, Rhys was reading for on campus learning. 

HURDLES

“Lockdown has changed learning,” expresses Rhys. “It has certainly been harder to connect with tutors and build a rapport due to lockdown.”

Rhys has also felt the impact at home learning has had on fellow disabled students in his role as the Disabled Students’ Officer for Birkbeck Union. “My role has changed with people coming to me struggling with ill health and mental health – there have been a plethora of different scenarios,” explains Rhys. “Both disabled and non-disabled students have been impacted by the pandemic.”

Working with fellow disabled students and the university, Rhys has been calling for the removal of evidence for mitigating circumstances, more accessible lectures and calls for exams and assessments to be reassessed.

“It is no longer appropriate to prover a mental health issue or another determining factor, we are removing the need for evidence,” Rhys continues. 

However, despite continued campaigning, disabled students are facing the challenges of remote learning head on – with many new issues arising.

EXPERIMENT

Rhys adds: “There have been specific issues for disabled students and distance learning.” From pre-recorded lectures that are too quiet or not accompanied by transcriptions, some disabled students have felt left behind – missing out on a significant amount learning. 

“This year has felt like we are experimental guinea pigs, it is not acceptable,” emphasises Rhys. “When we leave university and move into a professional capacity, we will still want to have knowledge just as good as if we had completed university in an ordinary year. I call my year the COVID Cohort, I hope we don’t come with too many negative connotations.” 

Not only has Rhys’ learning been impacted due to the pandemic, his time as a Leonard Cheshire intern was also affected.

CHANGE 100

Prior to the pandemic, Rhys was preparing to get involved with Leonard Cheshire’s Change 100 internship programme. Unfortunately, lockdown saw many companies put their programmes on pause, but Rhys managed to complete a remote internship with the BBC, being paired with a BBC mentor.

“We met several times to discuss her journey into her current position in the BBC and how I could go about getting into employment,” enthuses Rhys. “I was also introduced to several of my mentor’s colleagues; it was a really good experience to see the different career paths into law.”

NEXT STEPS

Despite the stumbling blocks, Rhys enthuses that UCL are already looking at ways to change their teaching methods moving to a hybrid method. “Studying remotely or in-person will always benefit disabled students,” explains Rhys. “This will allow disabled students to get the type of education that suits them.

“We are still in the early stages of university learning in the format of distance degrees, especially for people with a disability. The Open University is an expert at distance degrees.”

Leonard Cheshire will host a podcast speaking with disabled students about their experiences, which will be available at 10am, Saturday 27 March here.

Having experienced learning at The Open University first-hand, Rhys hopes that universities accept consultation from remote learning providers to ensure distance learning is at the highest standard possible across all campuses.

Rhys adds: “Distance learning for disabled students is probably still more efficient at The Open University, it is also even more widespread. I really wish universities would engage in consultancy and speak with disability charities to learn what adjustments are required.”

There is no denying learning has changed, regardless what stage of higher education you are in. From first year students to those in their final year, it is important to know there is help on hand if you are struggling. 

Rhys advises: “Be open about what struggles you are facing; talk about it and ask for help. If you get Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA) and reasonable adjustments, plus the support from your university and Student’s Association you will be in a very good position to achieve your potential.

“COVID has allowed the world to realise it can be flexible, this is something disabled people already knew. 

“The future will still be very bright for disabled students, we just need to make sure that people have a duty to meet reasonable adjustments.”

Further advice is available from UCASThe Open University, and Leonard Cheshire.