Inequality virus

Over the last few days, I’ve been looking at discussions on online classes. As the Polish education system is in lockdown, universities (and schools) are preparing to go online. I think it’s a good idea (on balance), but there are a number of things I would like to comment on.

As the plague spreads, and societies go into hiding, more and more activities go online. Polish universities are in urgent discussions (or, indeed, have taken urgent action) to go online. It’s hard to know whether this is because no one really wants to go on teaching (or assessing) in August, or perhaps to keep the momentum going, but classes will go onto the Internet. I have been observing a number of discussions on going online, whether to go real-time or just upload material, how to police attendance, or how space-intensive. your material can be. As important as those considerations are, I feel such discussions have jumped at least one stage – the stage of social inclusion.

So, let me put it as bluntly as I dare. I have a strong feeling that the discussions are creating an online presence which is socially exclusive, they ignore the issue of equal opportunity and access. There were a couple more sentences here, but I’d better stop. In this blogpost, I want to make a few comments on what I think is reinforcing social inequality. I fully suspect that that my comments are not exactly a wondrous discovery and what I am about to write is and has been known for years and years. I still want to make the comments, mostly because I think it’s important to make them.

Before I do, I want to make a reservation. As I talk about ‘discussions on online teaching’, I do realise that I represent them as one homogeneous discussion. It’s nothing of the sort. Different universities/schools will have different takes on them, people will differ in their views on how to teach online. I also have my own views. This post takes issue with what I perceive as most unhelpful ways of thinking about online delivery.

1. Let me start with what strikes me the most. The discussions on online delivery all assume that all students have easy and unfettered access to high-speed internet. I find such assumptions quite extraordinary. I am not certain people realise, but access to a high-speed internet connection, especially with high/unlimited data transfer costs (significant) money and online classes will depend on the ability to make such an expense. Yes, a lot of students will have such connections, but some, probably a minority, will not. And in my view, we should focus on those who don’t.

I also find arguments that most students will have a smartphone with a significant data allowance at least problematic. Yes, most will, but certainly not. Also, the allowance might already be spoken for by a myriad of life contexts and one should not assume that it’s available to be spent on the class I am about to do.

2. Now, even if you have the means to get the connection you need and want, it might not be possible. Let me explain my own situation. I now live in quite a rural area (birds do come here, but only the very brave ones) and the only internet service available is one from mobile telephony. That means that in the daytime, my internet speeds range between very poor to hardly acceptable. At night they pick up to half-decent. Unfortunately, I am yet to see anyone who suggests conducting synchronous classes in the small hours, which is a shame as this is when I could take part in them.

This also means that, if required, I could not do a real-time class even if my job/life depended on it. Unless someone quickly builds a fibreoptic connection in the village, my internet connection is, to use the technical term, crap. This time, it is not about money at all, but about systemic digital exclusion/divide. If I lived 20 km further west, my internet connection would be great (I’m lucky enough to be able to afford it), alas, I don’t.  Yet, I am yet to hear anyone talk about digital inequality, as if everybody in Poland had the opportunity to access high-speed internet. They really don’t.

3. Incidentally, as it happens, this morning I read a news story that the internet generally is slowing down. Large numbers of people are staying home and many of them (if not most/all) use the internet for working remotely, many do for passing the time. In other words, as Netflix servers go red hot, so is the transfer capacity of our (well, your) connections.

4. The discussions about students accessing our online delivery also assume that they all have unlimited access to their own computer (desk- or laptop). I would imagine that most do, but can we simply assume that they all do? I actually don’t think so. As much as I would like to say that computers are not very expensive (I have both a desktop and a laptop), I should add that they are not very expensive for me. There are many students, including, over the years, mine, who depended on their parents’ ability to buy them a computer. I’d imagine that for significant numbers of parents buying a new machine exclusive to one child might not be as easy as some of us imagine.

This is particularly so, when you go down the age ladder. Over the last couple of days, I heard some really harsh words from a mother who pointed out that there are two computers in her household and that means that no, not everybody can have access to it when they want.

It irritates me no end that online learning discussions assume without hesitation that all our students basically carry a laptop in their backpack which they can produce when asked. Needless to say, the laptop they produce is fairly new, easily handling all it’s asked to do by the blissfully oblivious online teacher.

Yes, I would suspect that a lot of our students do. But in this blogpost I am interested in those who don’t.

5. The final point I want to make is that the online delivery model assumes that the only thing that changes in the delivery is the location of the student (and the teacher). Normally, the student would be in class, now, as it happens, they’re at home, obviously available to take the class. I am really sorry to say this, but such an assumption is beyond stupid. And particularly so, in the case of those students (frequent in Poland) who take a UK Open-university kind of course. In other words, their classes happen only over intensive weekends where they would spend literally entire Saturdays and Sundays in class.

What is now happening is not only about changing the location of the students and the teacher. Many of those students will live with their parents who, as it is likely to happen, will also stay at home. The students’ siblings will not go to school and will also stay at home. That means that both the pressure on the home computer(s) will be much higher, while being able to simply say – please don’t disturb me, will be just about impossible. Many of those students will be parents/spouses who cannot simply say: pretend I am not here.

Yesterday, a friend told me that the advice on children they got was to dispense noiseless toys to their children with stern instructions to play quietly. The stupidity of such advice is breath-taking.

The same with weekend classes. The idea that you can simply go to a room (believe you me, not all Poles live in castles with wings) which will be off limits to the remainder of the family is just fatuous. No, you can’t. I suspect that all too many people will not be able to simply say: I am not making lunch as I am in class. No, you’re not, you’re at home. I would imagine there would be a strong gender dimension to such situations.

And so, when I read the discussions on how to do classes online, I keep thinking about all those who are assumed away from them. I see those discussions (and soon online delivery) predominantly as a means of reinforcing social inequality. Those who have the time, who have the means will do just fine. I keep thinking that as a profession we should focus on those who won’t. However few of them there are in our class.


1 Comment
  1. I agree with the statement about the reinforcement of inequality — a socio-economic inequality. I look at the university I’m employed at and see advantages afforded to a select few, who have much more time, better connections to power structures and thus more leverage.

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