Staff writer Ella Buckley asks if the post-pandemic return to in-person learning has left the disabled community at KCL behind.
The subject of online classes has certainly been thoroughly discussed over the last few years, since the Covid-19 pandemic forced a hiatus to in-person learning. With the Keep it Real KCL campaign tackling online classes as the biggest injustice facing university students today, it came with great relief and satisfaction to see a complete return to in-person learning at the beginning of this academic year – a move with the approval of 70% of respondents to a KCLSU poll. However, along with this great relief and satisfaction, we have simultaneously seen a regression in accessibility and accommodation arrangements for disabled people within our community. This has made King’s College London (KCL) arguably the least accessible it has been since 2019.
As all of us remember, the pandemic led to unprecedented levels of change to the university experience. In March 2020, all contact hours were moved online and courses generally remained ‘blended’ until September 2022. Undoubtedly, online learning was difficult and inaccessible in its own way. The university experience quickly became dictated by loneliness and stress over the global situation. There was huge pressure to return to a face-to-face learning experience. But is it possible that by ditching blended learning at university we have forgotten its benefits, particularly those which improved the university experience for disabled people?
In the academic year of 2021/22, many of us had primarily blended learning at university in order to slowly adapt back to campus life. At this point, it became clear how beneficial blended learning is for disability access to university. Whilst its introduction had not been done with disability access in mind, it was accidentally benefitting many students. As made clear by a committee member of the KCL Neurodiversity and Mental Health Society, the pandemic “highlighted that it is possible to get [the] disabled student accommodations [for which] we have been asking for years”.
Thus, with the change to blended learning techniques at King’s, many disabled people were essentially able to access the disability accommodations which would have been viewed as too difficult to implement before. As well as this, there was significantly improved access to online university events – for example, online or blended guest lectures and social opportunities via Zoom. This allowed for connection to online academic or social activities on our own terms. In more ways than one, the blended lifestyle was life-changing, now that it had finally been made possible thanks to the pressure of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, in September 2022 this all changed. King’s made the official decision to return to fully in-person learning, backed by the Keep it Real KCL campaign. This led to an almost-complete removal of online access to learning, as well as a substantial scaling-back of online events at university. We knew that blended learning accommodations were possible, but as they were no longer considered a priority, they were therefore no longer policy.
King’s Head of Disability Support and Inclusion, Barry Hayward, commented on the decision. “King’s made a decision to return to a fully on-campus teaching approach from 2022/23. This has presented some challenges for disabled students, particularly those who have been used to online learning required under Covid restrictions. My team is not empowered to request remote study as a reasonable adjustment and so students who are unable to attend campus on a full time basis need to request their needs to be considered under the Support for Study process, which can take some time to resolve.”
The nature of whether an adjustment is ‘reasonable’ is often a difficult and subjective matter. According to Citizens Advice, a volunteer-led online advisory group, “The Equality Act says there’s a duty to make reasonable adjustments if you’re placed at a substantial disadvantage because of your disability compared with non-disabled people or people who don’t share your disability”. If appropriate accommodations are not made, this is ‘unlawful discrimination’. Therefore, since the technology to continue blended learning is already there and it is easily accessible to staff who know how to implement it thanks to the last few years, one would imagine that blended learning should qualify as a ‘reasonable adjustment’. However, this is not currently the case at KCL.
Through my conversations with disabled students at King’s, it is clear that blended learning as an easily-implemented accommodation would be hugely beneficial. For some, it is absolutely necessary for them to receive a quality education. One disabled student said that “lectures are so much better online because my processing is so bad and being in class often induces panic attacks, so I don’t often get anything out of them”. Another student stated that blended learning was preferable since it was “too tiring to go to uni almost every day”. It is beyond clear that the loss of blended learning has massively impacted disabled members of our King’s community.
Of course, it should be specifically mentioned that this is not a push for online-only learning. Furthermore, as with all disability accommodations, there are a range of needs and opinions on the appropriate course of action. One solution will never work for everyone. Another student, Rory, explained that “I am better able to pay attention in-person and I have the opportunity to talk to lecturers informally after lectures which is very helpful for me to gain more from the course”. In this sense, it must also be said that the return to in-person teaching (and particularly the move away from online-only teaching) has some benefitted disabled people at KCL. However, Rory also agreed that access to blended learning is still best as “accessibility need[s] vary”. This is the essential point. Not everyone will benefit from blended learning, but if it allows even just one disabled person to fully access university – it should be a priority.
Not only this, but it appears that there is no university-wide policy on blended learning. Students have made it clear that the use of blended learning techniques differs substantially between each department and faculty, with some being more flexible than others. For example, as a dual-honours humanities student, I have personally found online provision to be far from a teaching priority in this academic year. Most, if not all, academic and social events are held in-person. KCL should work harder to provide blended and online options for lectures, seminars and social events in order to allow all students to fully access life at King’s.
In contrast to this experience, I have been told by several students in other departments that there is significantly more online learning provision – blended learning does quietly still exist at KCL. A committee member of the KCL Neurodiversity and Mental Health Society explained to me that, “I am thankful that my faculty offers a mix of both online and in-person learning”. Another student noted that “they do record lectures on my course and I know some people have hybrid lectures”, but also that “sometimes the recordings haven’t been great so I’m not sure if they’ve put that much effort into accommodating for people who would struggling to return to fully in-person teaching”. KCL’s accessibility accommodations are clearly not available university-wide, and whatever provisions are made are often not properly implemented. Access to blended learning is essentially luck of the draw – is disability access a priority or is it not?
Keep It Real KCL founder and lead, Joseph Wiltshire, recognises the impact of the return to full in-person learning. In a statement to Roar, he explained that “Our team knew that asking the university to reverse such a big decision would require the use of hyperbole and distinction. However, we sincerely believe that there is a university experience that can utilise the best of both online and in-person teaching. The intention of Keep It Real KCL was always to include rather than exclude King’s students.”
So what can be done? What are the benefits of blended learning? Regarding the teaching experience for those at King’s, one of the most obvious ‘accidentally accessible’ benefits was the access to lectures and seminars online. For many students, including myself, the access to blended classes and pre-recorded lectures allows for the unpredictable and fluctuating nature of having a disability. Before this academic year, there was a healthy mix of online and in-person events socially and academically – but, as mentioned before, this has largely now changed. As a standard, disabled people (and frankly all students) would benefit from online access to university events. This allows everyone to access the extra-curricular aspects of university with flexibility.
Finally, it should be highlighted that disability accommodations often don’t only benefit disabled people. Everyone at KCL would likely benefit from making blended learning a priority. Research assistant Charlotte Taylor-Page made this clear on Linkedin when she asked, “I wonder how we manage this without losing the increased accessibility of online learning and the benefits for disabled students, those with care-giving responsibilities and other marginalised folk”. Disabled people aren’t the only group who would benefit from this. Even beyond the inequality, fair accessibility and ease of implementation arguments, I’m sure that many people would find it helpful to be able to access university resources online as and when they are unavailable to attend in-person.
The choice to return to full in-person learning this academic year has been a failure in regard to disability access and inclusion at university. For many, hybrid learning provides access to university in ways that had never even been entertained before. The national move away from blended learning has caused many to feel helpless and desperate, as the resources which they had grown accustomed to and reliant upon are taken away. It is truly a shame to see such a significant regression in accessibility at university, and one can only hope that this will be reconsidered. Technology can improve lives – we should allow it to continue to do so.