By Ruby Punt, Comparative Literature MA
On 28 September, the East Asia department announced via email their decision to keep all language classes online in a bid to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and ensure all students have access to their classes. In the department’s original email, it was stated that ‘there will be language surgeries on campus.’ This email was only sent to students in the East Asia department, students outside of this department were not informed of this decision until they attended their first class.
When speaking to first-year BA Chinese student, Gunda Pavilonyte, about the department’s decision to keep classes online, she expressed how disappointed she was by online classes. She had specifically chosen to study languages at SOAS and had travelled from Lithuania under the assumption that classes would be in-person. Gunda explains how she felt ‘slightly tricked,’ as to the amount of in-person teaching that would be offered.
Gunda went on to explain how vital in-person teaching is for language learners, stating: ‘If anything I think it’s crucial for language majors, especially those learning the language for the first time, to have lessons in-person as listening is key in language learning which could be easily disturbed by any technical issues on either end.’
Numerous students have responded to the department asking them to reconsider. Among these students is Sophie Chapman, a third-year BA Japanese student, who reached out to the department on 30 September to make a formal complaint. Her email set out numerous reasons as to why she believed the decision should be reversed, citing other London universities – such as Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London and University College London. She went on to discuss how damaging online classes are for student’s mental health.
“This decision has done the exact opposite of creating equality between students’ learning”
She outlined that it is not fair to the students who can attend in-person classes for them to be denied the level of education they are paying for. Declaring that ‘I would go as far as to say this decision has done the exact opposite of creating equality between students’ learning, as all other students at SOAS will be receiving high quality, in-person teaching, whilst those of us in the East Asian department will be receiving a far lower standard of teaching through the online medium, for exactly the same fees, solely because no suitable alternative has been created.’
Sophie highlights that most of SOAS’s other classes, including other classes from the East Asia department, utilise a higher degree of blended teaching, and suggests this should be possible for language classes too.
Sophie goes on to say that she had been told that in-person ‘language learning cannot happen when wearing masks due to the need for lipreading,’ while she notes that in previous years during online classes some teachers themselves have turned off their cameras and encouraged students to do the same for security reasons.
She writes: ‘That whole time, despite not seeing anyone’s faces, we were told by SOAS that our online education was perfectly sufficient. So is it possible to learn a language without seeing mouths? Or is it the case that our online education actually wasn’t and will continue to not be sufficient due to not seeing people’s mouths?’
Since her first correspondence, Sophie has contacted the Office for the Minister for Higher Education and plans to continue campaigning for increased blended teaching.
The department responded to these complaints on 7 October in a mass email stating that ‘Plans for language-based activities are being discussed and will be finalised once all students are enrolled and tutorial groups are allocated.’
In a statement to the SOAS Spirit, SOAS has said: ‘SOAS designed teaching for 2021/22, like most of our neighbours in London, with a focus on in-person small-group teaching under strict safety guidelines. One key guideline was to ventilate classrooms and wear masks in class. EALC was the first department to respond proactively to these guidelines, committing to teaching disciplinary modules in person and offering in-person weekly language surgeries to make up for any language teaching that had to be moved online because of mask requirements. Some language teaching has to run online as long as a mask mandate is in place, and we are grateful to EALC that they have gone above and beyond in creating bespoke activities on campus so that students can still have an on-campus experience.’
Photo Caption: Email sent to East Asia Department in response to their announcement. (Credit: Lara Holly Gibbs)