How Oxford failed on lecture capture for disabled students

Disabled students promised access to recorded lectures have been consistently denied this support by the University since its recommended implementation in 2016, an Oxford Student investigation has found. Further, support was denied despite the University recording all lectures this term, as part of all teaching being conducted remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many disabled students have been left feeling angry and neglected after the swift implementation of distance learning for all in Trinity Term 2020, though many raised their needs repeatedly to departments and individual academic staff. One affected student, Robert*, told The Oxford Student the University “can be bothered to make the effort and adapt their teaching style when it is demanded by 100 students, but not when it was requested and legally required by me.”

As of Hilary 2019, 1,289 of Student Support Plans (SSPs) for disabled students state the provision of recorded lectures as a reasonable adjustment to support their learning. This represents 68% of all students with SSPs and roughly 5-6% of the entire student population. Under the 2010 Equalities Act, the University has a legal obligation to meet such recommendations.

Disabled students face a range of issues such as finding it hard to keep concentration over a full hour, or pay attention to a lecture whilst taking notes, that mean they require recorded lectures.

Despite this, The Oxford Student has been shown evidence of lecturers deliberately tampering with recording devices. A disabled student, Hannah* shared emails with The Oxford Student which detail how a lecturer prevented her lectures being recorded.

Upon emailing the University to ask why her lectures were not being recorded, she received a reply from a member of the department who found “the lecturer always closed the computer and moved the lectern away from him.” The member noted that they “asked him kindly not to do this as it could compromise the recording but each week he would still move it.”

Hannah, is about to sit her exams but is yet to receive any recordings at all for some of her modules. She told The Oxford Student that she has been “systematically failed during [her] undergraduate degree” and that “getting access to recorded lectures has been a huge fight for three years.”

Hannah also shared emails with The Oxford Student that show her being told to self-record lectures by her department upon asking for her lectures to be recorded. Since 2014, disabled students have had the right to record lectures themselves without seeking the express permission of the lecturer – but self-recordings are often poor quality, the process can disclose a student as disabled leading to unwanted remarks, and they don’t allow students to catch up if they have been unable to attend a lecture for unavoidable disability-related reasons.

The Oxford Student spoke to Robert*, a disabled student who also claims lecturers were negligent in providing him access to recorded lectures. He said: “I need all of my lectures to be sent to me so that I can forward them on to someone who formats them in an accessible way. This needs to be sent off months in advance, so that all the diagrams can be put into tactile formats.

“However, I have had some lecturers tell me that their material is their intellectual property, and so they can’t send it to me as I may copy it and send it to friends. They have clearly changed their minds on this under lockdown, as all resources are now available.”

“The recordings I did get before often had issues. Lecturers often ‘forgot’ to turn their microphones on or to start recording, and some lecturers chose to walk around during the lecture, so often the audio was unusable. But now lecturers seem to be using the software fine to share lecture material.”

A 2019 report highlighted lecturers’ and departments’ reluctance to share lecture recordings due to fear of them being shared with others, lowering attendance to their lectures, or their use whilst lecturers are striking.

Despite these concerns, data from a 2014 Physics trial indicates that 93% of students intended to use recorded lectures for revision, rather than as an excuse to skip in-person lectures, whilst minutes from a 2016 Maths Joint Consultative Committee stated that a Physics department pilot of lecture capture actually led to an increase in lecture attendance. It is also possible for recorded lectures to be provided only to students who need them due to support plans if there are concerns of use during lecturer industrial action.

A 2018 Oxford SU Disabilities Campaign survey found that only 5 out of 26 departments released recorded lectures universally. This at odds with a report from the University’s Digital Strategy Group in 2015 stating that lecture capture should be provided “as a core service”, encouraging its “widest possible adoption”. Lecture capture equipment was made available for all departments to use from the 2016-17 academic year onwards on an ‘opt-in’ basis, but uptake has been inconsistent both within and between departments.

In the same 2019 report mentioned earlier, the University’s own policy on lecture capture was criticised. While the University had hoped that lecture capture would become the norm with time, the report made clear that departments were not strongly urged to provide lecture recordings to students who need them. This is further highlighted in a 2016 post to the University’s IT blog which claimed there was ‘no expectation’ all lecturers and departments would take up lecture capture.

The report also criticised the University for not anticipating the needs of students who were unaware of, or unwilling to disclose their disability to the University, advising provision of lecture capture to all students to remedy this problem.

The SU Disabilities Campaign recommended alongside their 2018 survey that lecturers receive training on why Lecture capture is essential to many students. It was also recommended that a centralized system of reporting lecture capture issues be set up, both to enable better access for students and to relieve the administrative burden placed on all parties. As of May 2020, no such changes have been made.

With all lectures being recorded and put online in response to the pandemic, many students do not want the University to go back on its progress. Tiri Hughes, current chair of the SU Disabilities Campaign, who is also disabled, told The Oxford Student: “Departments have often given the reason that it would not be practical to record all lectures, but COVID-19 has shown that this is clearly possible when enough people need it.

“Obviously these are unprecedented times, but a lot of disabled people feel incredibly frustrated that we’ve fought for years for an adaptation that we need to access learning in the same way that our peers do, but as soon as non-disabled people need it it suddenly becomes available.”

She continued: “The recorded lectures I’ve had so far have been so much more accessible to me and I think they almost equalise my learning experience with my non-disabled peers, which is definitely not true of normal lectures.

“… We’ve noted frustration among a lot of disabled students and have already been in discussion with central services such as the Disability Advisory Service to help ensure that the progress gained during this pandemic is not lost. Many disabled students are finally able to access University education in a way that they have been wishing to for years.”

It is unclear whether the University will maintain the provision of lecture capture it has demonstrated this term. The Oxford Student has contacted various departments to ask about plans for the use of lecture capture in the terms to come, with mixed results.

The department of Philosophy has stated that lectures currently available to students will ‘expire’ at the end of the term, while History lectures will be ‘archived’ from Michaelmas Week 1 (with one lecture series this year cancelled, due to technical difficulty).

The departments of Law and Physics have stated that a decision has not yet been made on how long lectures will be available on Panopto for, or if recordings will continue to be made presuming a return to in-person teaching in Michaelmas.

Conversely, the department of Economics has stated that lectures currently available to students will be visible for the duration of their degrees.

Minutes from a Biochemistry Joint Consultative Committee meeting held on the 4th of May stated that “The University has recommended that recorded lectures should be available to students until they have been completed any assessments related to that lecture course”, a policy that contradicted the Medical Science Division’s policy to keep recordings until the end of the summer holidays.

Ultimately, individual departments still have the final say in deciding whether they provide lecture capture or not due to Oxford’s ‘opt-in’ policy. A recent University report shown to The Oxford Student stated it should be considered whether the current opt-in policy is appropriate, given many departments’ reluctance to implement lecture capture.

Róisín McCallion, SU Vice President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, elaborated on the perspective of lecturers, as well as students who need access to recordings.

“I… do support the use of lecture recordings, but also believe there has to be a guarantee from the University alongside this that such resources will not be stored indefinitely and certainly not be made available during periods of industrial action.”

“It is about striking the balance of rendering an Oxford education accessible to all, which to this point it has not been, and also respecting and protecting staff.”

The Oxford Student contacted the University for comment on disabled students’ lack of access to recorded lectures in the past, and whether the University would maintain universal lecture recording to remedy this in the future.

A spokesperson responded: “Ensuring that our students can continue or complete their academic careers at Oxford, while being assessed fairly, regardless of their background or individual circumstances, remains at the heart of our response to the pandemic crisis.

“We feel that the best way to achieve this is through the widespread adoption of inclusive teaching, which if done well, means that it is no longer necessary to make special arrangements for most disabled students. Instead, they can be treated like any other student, which we know many would prefer.

“Given the need to adapt our programme to the needs of this crisis, and supplement our highly personalised face-face teaching approach with high quality remote learning tools, we are putting in place plans that have inclusive teaching at their heart. The University has adapted at pace to the needs of online teaching and learning this term, and we look forward to it playing an important role in our learning programme next year.”

Whatever happens in the future, many students with disabilities are still angry at having had to struggle in the past. Hannah stated: “There is a belief by many staff that disabled students are lazy and simply don’t want to attend. For me, this could not be further from the truth.

“If I was lazy, I would not have spent three years begging for lecture recordings with the intention to play them in hospital waiting rooms, or in the car as I’m driven home after a procedure. The university often suggests suspension of study, but this would not help me because my disabled body is a permanent reality.”

Image Credit: Josh Boddington

*Not their real name