Due to the Government’s implementation of Level-3 regulations for the entire country, it is now evident that universities, including UCC, will remain operating on a virtual level for the foreseeable future. UCC was already acting in accordance with Government directions, stating that lectures were to be ‘delivered online to the maximum extent possible.’ This directive was released on Friday September 25th, just prior to the commencement of the new academic term. For the most part, these enhanced protective measures were met with understanding from staff and students. Interim President of UCC, Professor John O’Halloran, admitted that these measures deprived students “of the Campus experience that is such an important part of University life.”
As term commenced on Monday September 28th 2020, the digital learning environment that staff and students were adjusting to, was showing faults at an early stage. All UCC students were advised in an email on Monday morning that acknowledged the issue: ‘a slowdown in the performance of UCC’s Canvas platform.’ It was also stated in the email from IT support that the “degraded performance” was affecting a number of other universities.
The digital divide between students is often spoken about in a largely philosophical sense, but the sheer effects of the divide were acknowledged by the Government recently, as there was funding made available for the purchase of additional laptops by the University. In UCC, this is being run under an umbrella scheme, known as the ‘Laptop Loan Scheme.’ This was launched by Jamie Fraser, UCC Students’ Union Welfare Officer, on September 15th 2020. From the scheme’s inception, it was acknowledged by the Students’ Union (UCCSU) that there would be ‘strict criteria and it is extremely likely that demand will outweigh supply.’ In the terms and conditions of this scheme, the laptop remains the property of UCC for the one year loan of the device for the duration of the 2020/21 Academic Year. Eligibility is assessed on a needs basis, ‘prioritised as appropriate by UCC and the Students’ Union.’ The first batch of these laptops were distributed by Mr Fraser on October 7th 2020 but applications are still open and the application form can be found on the UCC website.
When speaking with University Express, Mr Fraser said that students were highly interested in the initiative. He said that the Students’ Union, while working closely with ACCESS and various other support services, intentionally made the criteria ‘broad to try and bridge the middle class divide we see so often.’ When asked if he thought that the laptop loan scheme went far enough in bridging the divide, Mr Fraser said “Yes and no, I think it was a fantastic initiative and well thought through and we’ve done our absolute best we can with the resources made available to us. However, there are still students living in rural areas and abusive homes and no amount of laptops can account for those circumstances and hence the digital divide was not fully bridged.”
Given the Digital Divide and the many other barriers facing UCC students from accessing the course content, Interim President of UCC, Professor John O’Halloran confirmed to all students via email on Wednesday October 7th 2020 that most programmes ‘will be delivered online for the remainder of the semester.’ This decision follows on from other universities, such as NUIG and UCD, making similar announcements in recent days. It had already been acknowledged by UCC before this that all assessments for semester one will occur virtually and the examination period has been arranged to take place after the Winter break, from Friday 8th January 2021 up to Friday 15th January 2021.