An Online Learning Experiment – Exploring the Educational Disparities that Arise in the Online Classroom

Publisher’s Note: This is the first article of a two-part series. While this article explores the inequalities that exist in the transition to remote learning, Part II explores new innovations in educational tech that might address some of these inequalities. Make sure to read both!

It’s 8:30 am on Tuesday March 10th. I just woke up to get ready for my 9am class. I had an exam that morning and stayed up late studying, but spring break was on the horizon. I only needed to push through a few more school days, and then I’d finally be able to relax. I quickly ran through my morning routine before checking my phone and seeing an email from the university reading, “We will begin transitioning to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes…” followed by “students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-Year dorms as soon as possible.” My heart sank. I was at a loss for words.

Harvard students waiting with belongings outside Leveret House on March 10th (Source: Harvard Crimson).

The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted our daily routines in unprecedented ways. While almost everyone faced some kind of shock moment upon hearing the news that their university would be moving online, the reasons for that shock vary significantly. It’s a given that a lot of students were devastated about missing time with their friends, but others worried about whether or not they would even be able to complete this semester at home. College students went from having abundant access to libraries, resources, equipement, and space to facing the realities of their home conditions. Walking through a college campus, our socioeconomic status is not stamped across our foreheads, and people aren’t always able to see what someone has and does not have access to. As classes on Zoom have claimed the space of the new normal and transformed our perceptions of what being a college student is, disparities amongst students have been placed in the limelight. I conducted several interviews with college students to shed light on some of those experiences. 

One Harvard student is spending her quarantine in New Jersey. She has two sisters at home including a younger sister who is also taking classes online. Because there’s only one workspace in her house which mostly her little sister uses, she takes most of her classes in bed. 

With her mom not currently working and her dad working less because he lost one of his jobs, her family tends to all be at home. She says, “we all do different things, [but] the walls are not thick, they don’t block sound, so sometimes if someone wants to play music, I can hear it even if I’m in my own room with the door closed… so it’s hard to block out sounds and stuff.” At school, she was always on the move, but at home even though she doesn’t have as many commitments on her plate, she finds that she ends up staying up late sometimes, “because if the house is noisy during the day, [she has] to do the work during the night.”

This student remembers being shocked when she woke up to the email and initially not understanding why such a drastic move had to be made. But while she was nervous about the space and noise at home, she says a main part of her initial concern was her personal and mental health. For her, “in terms of enjoying herself and mental health … [she] doesn’t go home for those things.” She was nervous about “how [she] was going to focus on school … and basic things that [she] has access to at school that [she] doesn’t always have at home [like] health insurance.”

She acknowledges that even if some people may not be dealing with the financial burden or their parents losing their jobs, it’s still easy for anyone to feel unmotivated because of the different environment and not having access to libraries and study rooms. 

Source: Harvard Crimson.

One NYU Tisch student confirms that idea. This student is spending her quarantine at home at the epicenter of the pandemic in Queens, NY. When she first received the news that she’d be spending the second half of this semester at home, she was worried. College had brought her a new found sense of independence and freedom, and she didn’t know how taking classes at home would pan out. After making significant financial investments into her college experience, it made her uneasy to think she’d essentially be going to “YouTube school.”

She asserts that the most frustrating part about this new normal “is not having actual space to feel like you can get your work done and constantly being interrupted by family members.” While she’s been trying her best to adjust, she admits that the transition for her “has been pretty awful [and she doesn’t think] that people or institutions acknowledge how multi-layered a person’s life can be.”

As a film major, her experience differs from most college students. She asserts that “the socioeconomic layer … it’s a little more clear in the arts because you have to show yourself and who you are and where you live.” On her college campus, the opportunities were “limitless” because she “could actually film without feeling judged,” but now she felt like some part of her creativity is “limited.” Filming a scene as simple as a morning routine, she says, raises concerns, because in order for her to do that, “all the appliances have to work. The fear of being judged is heavy.” 

While she’s thankful she has a camera, she doesn’t own other equipment she once had access to on campus and now has to work harder to get the perfect shot. She questions, “how are you gonna do a film without a steady shot? You need a tripod for that. You could set it on the table, but what if it falls? How are you going to do a film of a moving shot without a steady cam or without a shoulder mount?” 

These are valid questions, and there may not be a clear-cut answer. And while these are just two stories, it’s clear that the educational disparities during this pandemic have taken many forms. It’s monumental that the technology even exists that allows us to interact with one another on this scale and actually hold classes online, but the online playing field is not equal. Students are going to class everyday with environmental worries that are not placed in the forefront when at a college campus. Whether that be financial worries, a workspace (or lack thereof) issue, lack of access to technology/equipment/wifi, or just uncertainty about personal health, it’s evident that more needs to be done to adequately compensate for these disparities in order for this mode of learning to actually be sustainable as the new normal.

Writer’s Note by Manciana and Siona

Writing these two pieces, we realized that our claims inherently conflict. On the one hand, we saw technology finding ways to create accessibility to education from home, enriching and personalizing education despite the trying circumstances. On the other hand, we didn’t think it was fair to highlight these technological advancements without considering the complexity of the current situation. What do these advancements in technology mean if not everyone has equal access to that technology and isn’t able to take full advantage of it? Are we trying to use technology to solve problems that technology is in-part responsible for creating? 

The answer is definitely not black and white. However, no technology has ever been perfect upon creation. We iterate and innovate to overcome the challenges we face. With that said, we recognize that some of these challenges may be unsolvable by technology alone. But, ultimately, we’ll never know if we never try.

Check out part two of this series here!

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