Inequality in distance learning, virtual meeting and teleworking

A few weeks ago, one of my students emailed me: “I don’t have the intention to quit the course. I have been absent because of my very bad internet connection”. She lives in Luxembourg, which is this year’s richest country in the world based on GPD per capita (cf worldpopulationreview.com: Luxembourg $119,719; Norway $86,362; Switzerland $83,832; Ireland $81,477; Iceland $78,181; Qatar $65,062; The United States of America $64,906; Denmark $63,434; Singapore $62,690; Australia $58,824). Those in developing nations, where there is a vast gap between the haves and have-nots, experience even more inequality in distance education, virtual meeting and teleworking.

The abrupt shift to education online has created practical, technical, and emotional challenges; and the lack of reliable technology and Internet access is only a tip of the iceberg. There are issues concerning teachers’ ability to carry out their tasks remotely, home environment that favour or disfavour learning, and help (or lack of it) that students get offline.

The data compiled by the Teacher Task Force, an international alliance coordinated by UNESCO, found that half of all students currently out of the classroom — or nearly 830 million learners globally — do not have access to a computer. As well, more than 40 per cent have no Internet access at home. (see ''Startling disparities in digital learning emerge as COVID-19 spreads: UN education agency'' published by UN News on April 21, 2020)

I teach adults at their company premises, which haven’t resumed yet. Currently, I have only two classes online. My son has been at home since the end of March finishing his first-year tertiary studies virtually and will return to Warwick University (UK) in October. My friends and acquaintances have told me that they will continue to have video conferences instead of face-to-face meetings until the end of 2020. Whatever and wherever the situation, there is a form of inequality.

Through distance teaching, I got to meet my students’ children who needed instant parental care, men who wanted information from their wives right away and barking dogs (one of them jumped into its owner’s lap while we were discussing dog-eating people). Online lessons involve synchronous teaching in real-time, providing students with experience close to traditional classroom instruction. Overall, there are pluses: 1) active participation; 2) individual-centred teaching/learning; 3) varied materials used; 4) safe and stress-free environment. As a teacher, however, I miss observing my students doing their writing exercises and role plays. On the other hand, I save about two hours of commuting, and this gives me more time to prepare to be a better moderator and guide in their learning.

After three lessons via Zoom, my students had a stocktake; all of them expressed a strong preference for face-to-face learning over a virtual class. Their main reasons relate to social interaction and the psychological role of non-verbal communication. Considering that two of them use their phones while the other four their personal computers with widescreen monitors, there is an inequality issue.

Almost all organisations across the globe have brought their board, committee and staff meetings and conversations into homes using technology platform and video conference software. The most used for these purposes are Cloud Meeting, ClickMeeting, ezTalks Cloud Meeting, Facetime, Freeconferencecall GoToMeeting, GroupMe, Infinite Conferencing, JoinMe, Skype, Slack, TeamViewer, WatchItToo, Webex, Zoho Meeting, and Zoom. These obviously save travel times, but the equipment can be expensive and requires compatibility. The quality of image and sound depends on the amount spent on technology, which is not the same for everyone.

After the pandemic, virtual teaching and meetings are here to stay. Can we erase inequality? How can we reduce this?

Meanwhile, if your concern is making the most of distance learning or meeting, check out the following articles to start with:

All the best.

(This article also appears in my website Rolade Societal Blog - roladesocietalblog.com)

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