Specialists advocate universal access to the internet and remote learning technologies as public goods
March 31, 2021
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – Education has been one of the main victims of the pandemic throughout the world, and especially in Brazil. School closure, lack of access to the internet and electronic devices, and a failure to implement remote learning programs will affect an entire generation of students and the future of work, resulting in a brutal increase in inequality.
“At this moment, after 12 months of the pandemic during which 2,000 people have died from COVID-19 every day on average in Brazil, we need to have a debate in society about Wi-Fi and broadband access as a public good, like water and electricity. It’s a particularly important public good at this time in the pandemic for all groups but especially for the most vulnerable. There are lots of pluses and benefits for remote learning in assuring access to digital technology for this purpose,” said political scientist Lorena Barberia, a researcher at the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP) during a webinar held to discuss “Education: COVID-19 and social inequalities” on March 3, 2021. This was the ninth in the series FAPESP COVID-19 Research Webinars, organized with support from the Global Research Council (GRC).
For Barberia, who led a state-by-state study of school closure and remote learning programs in Brazil during the pandemic, it is important not to think about this topic simplistically, in terms merely of whether to open or close schools, especially at a time like the present, when hospitalizations and deaths are peaking. “It’s a much more complex issue. Even if schools reopen, the problem isn’t over and will have lasting consequences,” she said.
On average, state-run schools were closed for 34.4 days before launching remote education programs in 2020, Barberia noted. In addition to the delay, programs were poorly designed and failed to include solutions to expand access.
“Only a few states increased access to remote learning. Lots of students don’t have access to the internet, and many don’t even have a cell phone or computer. In many households, there’s only one cell phone for five or six family members to share, so in this situation, students obviously can’t keep up with remote learning sessions,” she said.
The digital divide entails acute inequality, with part of the population having access to education and the other part not having a single day of classes in the whole of last year. “Education was already very unequal in Brazil, and it became even more so in 2020. Many schools continued to offer classes, but only for students with internet access,” Barberia said.
Opinions on school reopening should take lack of access and distance education coverage into account, she added. Perhaps different programs should now be designed for students who have had remote classes and those who have had none. “Many students went for months without classes of any kind. Others eventually began watching classes on TV. It’s completely different for students who had access to remote education for several hours and with supervision. I believe special attention should be paid to students who lack access. There are major inequalities,” she said.
The effects of segregation in the United States
Another speaker in the webinar was sociologist Prudence Carter, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. She said the pandemic has also worsened pre-existing inequality in the United States. “It’s no coincidence that we have educational inequality between different neighborhoods in the same city. This has to do with our history of racial and economic segregation,” she stressed.
Many private schools that did not close during the pandemic in the US are “quasi-businesses and had to remain open because they needed to sustain themselves,” Carter noted. “In the case of public schools, which were closed, students were at a complete and utter disadvantage because of this segregation. We know from data in the United States that there is a wide digital divide that is highly correlated with both class and race. Many homes lack access to the internet. Many don’t have a computer or a household member who can provide support for students.”
Broadband access should be a public good like water and light, Carter also insisted.
The problems of educational inequality in the US are multiple and multidimensional, she said, and demand multidimensional solutions involving sociology, economics, political science, and social psychology. “The different allocations of capital have engendered disparate material contexts for schooling and learning in the pandemic,” she stressed. “Parents and educators are also anxious about ‘learning loss’, a concept that has emerged under the pandemic. Learning loss is the fear that our students will be so far behind that it will impact their earnings and productivity in the long run. But instead of worrying about who’s going to be behind, I believe we should concern ourselves with what we need to do to allow children to acquire knowledge at a faster rate after the pandemic. How can we radically improve hybrid learning so that remote learning can be more effective for all children? At a macro policy level, this has implications for broadband access and infrastructure in our country.”
Carter presented the findings of a Pew Research Center survey showing how politicized the issue of school reopening has become in the US. “Among African-Americas, Latinx, and Asian-Americans, 80%, 69%, and 72% respectively want to wait until all teachers are vaccinated. Among whites, the proportion is 51%. The differences are also significant if you break it down by income,” she said. “But above all, the survey shows the issue has become highly politicized. While 79% of respondents who identified as Democrat said they’d prefer to keep schools closed until teachers are vaccinated, only 34% of those who identified as Republican expressed this preference.”
France: education and confinement
In France, researchers analyzed the impact of education inequalities on schools and families during a two-month lockdown period in 2020. “There was no use of remote education before the pandemic in France, so we had a very difficult situation where school closures placed all the weight of education on parents. In the absence of a French tradition of investigating parental support in education, we decided to find out whether there were inequalities in parental involvement during lockdown,” said sociologist Romain Delès, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux.
The project consisted of a survey questionnaire sent to more than 63,000 public and private kindergartens and primary and secondary schools and completed by almost 32,000 parents or guardians. “On one hand, remote learning was compulsory, but on the other hand families were free to do whatever they liked to support their children,” Delès said. “The teachers sent daily assignments, but parents could choose how and when to help students with their school work. Teachers provided support, but parents could choose between the internet and exclusive TV programs in this period. This freedom was a sort of trap for some families.”
The survey showed parental participation in schoolwork to be close to 100% among families whose children were in the early years of formal schooling. From the eighth grade on, the proportion fell to 86%. “Most upper-class parents said the period was not a big deal. ‘It was not very harsh, we coped well, we managed to do what we wanted’. They stressed optimistic aspects. ‘We were all together in the family. We could do things we don’t usually do’. This can be construed as a subjective minimization of the effort involved in school work. Objectively it was an effort, but subjectively they didn’t experience it as an effort,” he said.
Another finding was that upper-class parents were more active in non-direct support, proposing exercises that used alternative resources and learning situations designed by themselves. They gave their children considerable freedom to learn on their own, proposing non-academic activities and planning specific time for the arts and culture.
A recording of the webinar can be watched in full at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sqKirWXK3s.
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