Long-term ill student demands policy change for online education – and the faculty answers

18 Jan 2023

The beginning of this academic year marked the end of web lectures. However, especially students with long-term chronic illnesses struggle with the new offline policy of Radboud University. To get access to online classes, students have to contact all lecturers individually. ‘It felt like web lectures had become a taboo.’

A hot cup of tea is standing in front of Lisa Boekeloo. She is wearing a green sweater and her cheeks are still rosy from the cold winter air outside. By looking at her, one would not be able to tell that Boekeloo is sick. But the life of the student has changed drastically after being diagnosed with glandular fever in August 2022.

Boekeloo was about to start her second year of Philosophy, Politics and Society when she started to feel tired constantly. ‘I could have slept all day’, she says. The most mundane tasks exhausted her.

While the symptoms of glandular fever vary from person to person, Boekeloo has been experiencing extreme fatigue. On top of that, her immune system is weakened, which means that the 23-year-old is at a higher risk of catching infectious diseases – including the flu or Covid.

‘I moved back in with my parents to have the energy I needed to follow my lectures online’

‘I knew that I had to set priorities’, she explains. ‘For me, that was university. So, I stopped working, left my apartment in Nijmegen, and moved back in with my parents to have the energy I needed to follow my lectures online.’ But despite online lectures having been the standard for the past two years, Boekeloo learned that setting them up this study year was anything but straight-forward.

Offline is not the new online

When the university and the faculties decided to drop the availability of online lectures, they did so to attract students back to campus, says Professor Cees Leijenhorst, director of education at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies (PTR). This policy was introduced after the university noticed that many students did not return to in-person lectures. By dropping the availability of online lectures, the university hoped to create a motivational factor that would help students who suffered from mental health problems due to their long isolation.

However, switching from online to offline does not seem to work as well as the university had hoped: ‘It turns out that the problem runs deeper than we have suspected last summer’, Leijenhorst says. ‘We now know that a large group of students suffer from mental health problems that actually prevent them from coming to campus. Moreover, many students cannot come to campus because of other reasons, because they are caregivers, for instance, or because physical health problems hinder them from coming to the lectures.’

Web lecture taboo 

Lisa Boekeloo. Photo: Astrid Vermeer.

For Boekeloo, the latter has been the case: ‘My parents live two hours from Nijmegen and the traveling would have been too draining. Therefore, I contacted the student advisor to ask for access to online education’, the student explains. ‘I was told that there was a strict offline policy. So, I had to contact all the lecturers individually and hope that they would make an exception for me.’

For Boekeloo, the fact that it suddenly seemed too complicated to provide access to online education was discouraging. ‘It felt like web lectures had become a taboo. I was so angry about that because, in my opinion, it’s not helping students at all.’ 

‘It felt like web lectures had become a taboo’

Leijenhorst regrets the way the faculty has handled Boekeloo’s situation. ‘All of us, especially the student advisors, try our best to help students that face hardship of any kind. In this case, we obviously did not sufficiently address the student’s needs’, he says. ‘We apologise for this.’

Return online?

Boekeloo is not the only student who is experiencing difficulties due to the new online policy. Many students have troubles implementing their education into their daily lives, which is why the Faculty of PTR – together with other faculties – is working on better online solutions, Leijenhorst says. ‘The Campus and Facilities Service has promised us that the possibilities for web lectures will be extended during the summer break. This means that from the next academic year onwards, students may follow lectures online again.’ Leijenhorst emphasizes that this does not apply for seminars due to their interactive nature. Still, web lectures seem to be making a comeback soon. 

While Boekeloo believes that this is a step in the right direction, she also hopes that she will not be needing this promised online education in the future. With the beginning of the new semester, Boekeloo wants to return to campus and attend lectures physically again. ‘I am not sure whether this is going to work out in the end’, the student says. For now, she keeps her fingers crossed.   

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