A revolt by students and staff has forced AUT University to abandon a plan to start all courses again in one-month blocks and extend the academic year until Christmas.

University vice-chancellor Derek McCormack told students last night that the block learning scheme will not go ahead this year and the original term dates, ending the academic year on November 6, will be restored.

“We know that these are uncertain times and many students have told us that the block learning approach communicated last week was creating additional uncertainty and anxiety,” he said.

“We have listened to you and rethought our approach. We will maintain our two-semester calendar, with programmes adjusting their existing timetable as needed.

“Preparing for block learning has led to significant content being ready for effective online delivery, and this can now be delivered in our semester model. There are still challenges ahead for some of our programmes, particularly those that are skills-based and experience-driven.

“However, New Zealand appears to be in a more optimistic space regarding managing Covid-19 and this too has allowed us confidence about remaining with our usual timetable and a combination of online and on campus delivery when we shift from Level 4.”

The backdown comes after more than 3000 students and 170 staff signed separate petitions opposing the changes.

The original plan was unveiled to staff on March 23, the day the Prime Minister announced that New Zealand would go into lockdown two days later.

It was announced to the university’s 28,000 students on April 1 in a joint statement by McCormack and AUT student president Sisifa Lui saying the plan would “support the shift to online teaching, which all universities have had to make during the Covid-19 lockdown”.

All papers were to be taught in eight four-week blocks, one for each paper, running from April 27 to December 20.

Holidays were to be reduced to two one-week breaks in July and October.

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“With block learning you can immerse yourself in one paper at a time. It’s a more focused approach to learning and assessment,” McCormack and Lui said at the time.

“Each paper will be delivered consecutively in a four-week block of study, with a total of eight blocks in 2020. Say ‘goodbye’ to the stress of juggling multiple papers and having assessments due at the same time.”

But students protested that the new system would make it impossible for many to earn enough in holiday jobs to support their studies, would not suit practical subjects such as engineering or project-based research, and would harm students who missed crucial weeks of the short four-week blocks through illness or family issues such as attending tangi.

Student Eva Lok wrote: “We are only two weeks behind on our learning, it doesn’t make sense to extend the academic year by seven weeks and to RESTART all our papers [regardless of whether or not we’re getting credited for those papers].”

Staff said it was clear that McCormack and key executives had been working on the block learning proposal for some time, based on a model at Victoria University in Melbourne, and used the lockdown as an opportunity to announce it without widespread consultation.

The university’s website now says that both teaching and assessments will remain online-only as long as the level 4 lockdown continues.

“When the alert level goes down to alert level 3 it is probable that teaching activities that require specialised facilities will be able to take place, as long as correct social distancing can be maintained and attendance is logged to ensure contract tracing should this be required,” it says.

“AUT supports a ‘blended learning’ approach of face-to-face supported by online, as we believe this approach best suits our curriculum and learning needs of our students.

“At alert level 3, typically teaching will still be online and generally students will not be encouraged to come on campus. Teaching in small groups may occasionally take place where it’s important for students to be physically present, as long as social distancing can be maintained.”

• Alert levels: covid19.govt.nz.

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