Editor’s Note: The following commentary originally appeared in the Hartford Courant, written by Higher Education and Student Affairs graduate student Jia Cai.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, millions of students nationwide have been forced into online learning. Many of those experiences have been negative because of schools’ lack of preparation, because of some faculty not considering student needs, and because of financial stresses.
Online learning is especially affecting students majoring in sciences, education, and the fine arts; international students and students living in different time zones; students from low-income families and students with disabilities
The COVID-19 pandemic did not give institutions much time to prepare for a sudden switch to online learning, and lack of preparation had led to student dissatisfaction. A recent study of Pakistani students, published in the Journal of Pedagogical Sociology and Psychology, found that the lack of face-to-face interactions with instructors, slower instructor responses to students, and the absence of traditional classroom socialization were top reasons for the dissatisfaction.
Do not let the inequity that already exists in our higher-education system continue to haunt students with disadvantages in an online environment.
From what I observe, online learning is particularly difficult for science majors who rely on laboratory sessions and for education majors who carry out their “clinicals” in classrooms to gain experience. Fine arts majors need studios and in-person instruction to create art. Faculty members who do not consider student needs also cause harm. As Christian Friedrich, co-host of a German podcast on open education, explained in a recent podcast on “Equity in Learning Design,” lots of faculty judge students’ lives by looking at their own without even being aware of this. They assume that all students are able to engage in online classes that meet at set times. However, international students and students living in different time zones are forced to get up at abnormal hours to attend lectures. Some professors should not assume that synchronous learning would be the best fit for everyone.
Students with disabilities might not be able to watch course videos without subtitles, see the color contrasts in slides, or sit in front of the screen for a long time. But turning on captions for hearing-impaired students or using colors that colorblind students can discern – such things matter for students with disabilities. There is limited training available to professors, however, in how to design lecture content to help disabled students.
Most of all, many students cannot afford or get access to reliable Wi-Fi in their homes and neighborhoods. Internet shutdowns can stop them from taking their exams. Students are expected to be able to afford stable Wi-Fi, which is unfair for those from low-income families who already struggle with housing and food insecurity during these difficult times. An episode of the podcast Teaching in Higher Ed talked about how online learning is really about access to learning spaces. Students are doing the best they can to find such spaces during this pandemic. Students used to be able to find quiet or communal spaces with free Wi-Fi and good computers, such as campus libraries, but that has been taken away on many campuses by the pandemic. Now we just presume that students have quiet spaces to study at home. Many do not.
Online learning must ensure the quality and equity of student learning. Classes cannot be taught in a way that fits solely the institution’s convenience and preferences. Do not let the inequity that already exists in our higher-education system continue to haunt students with disadvantages in an online environment.
Jia Cai is a first-year student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s program at the University of Connecticut.