The uneven playing field

01 May 2020

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

“I DO not have a room of my own or even a corner in a room with a desk that I can use when attending online classes,” a student wrote to me regarding his experience of taking online courses recently. He shares a room with three younger siblings, and lives in a small house. He used to be in the hostel and was able to work there and in the library. Now that he is home, he is finding it hard to attend classes, participate in classes, and do the assignments that need to be written while working from home.

Another student is attending classes but is not participating in class discussions. I called to check on her and ask why. She said that the environment in her home is very noisy. She also shares a room with other siblings, and she lives in a joint family household with some cousins as well as a number of aunts and uncles. She said that there was no notion of private space in her household. When she is attending classes online anyone can enter the room anytime and anyone can speak anytime. She is always conscious of household chatter going on in the background and is never sure when something absurd, outrageous, inappropriate or just plain distracting might be said. So, she cannot switch on her microphone.

She has even tried reasoning with other members of the household but with little or no success so far. Household members do not mind her taking online classes; they, in fact, want her to attend classes and continue with her studies. They are just not used to being quiet around children and young people who might be studying. So, they come into the room anytime, talk when the student is attending classes and do not think of this as a big deal. But the result is that the student can neither participate in the class discussion as she cannot switch on her microphone nor can she concentrate on the lecture and the class discussion. This will surely impact what she is able to retain and understand.

The issue of parents and siblings not understanding what is needed by students attending live online classes has been mentioned by quite a few of my students. Students need space, and silence in the background. They need a corner that they can get familiar with and use to attend classes, study, think, write and so on. When students attend live classes they need to concentrate and not be distracted by background chatter and when microphones are on, they need assurance that they will not be disturbed or embarrassed by someone saying something inappropriate.

If online classes are to allow students to learn, households need to develop SOPs.

Household members need to understand that online classes are like the student being in a real class. Just because the student might be sitting in the room with them does not mean they can have a conversation with the student and also expect that the student will be able to attend, and more importantly, concentrate. If online classes are to continue and allow students to learn, households need to develop and implement effective SOPs to facilitate the students’ participation in classes and more effective engagement and learning.

There is a gender dimension to the issue as well. A lot more of my female students have been complaining about home environment issues than male students. Female students carry more of the burden of household chores and find less time for doing assignments.

This is especially true for a subset of our, mostly, graduate students who are mothers. Hostels and time at university were an equalising force. Time at home is differently valued. Many parents, siblings and other household members do not take the education of young women in the same way as they do of young men. If there is a household chore to be done, or younger siblings to be taken care of, the burden, it seems, falls more on the females than males. Household members do not allow the same ‘privacy’ to females on the internet as they do to males. Female time is also not valued in the same way so some female students have a lot less time to study than their male counterparts.

Some students have also complained that parents and elders think that when they are sitting in front of the computer and are on the internet, they are actually chatting or playing games — they believe that if young people are on the internet, they need to be monitored. If they are chatting/talking, then they can be disturbed and there need be no presumption of privacy or need for undivided attention. If they are on the computer, it cannot be for research or writing and it is okay to talk about chores. One student was particularly upset: “My uncle — I live in a large joint family — uses a lot of swear words in his conversations. I do not have a separate room and the computer is in the living room. I can never have my microphone switched on as I never know when my uncle is going to be in the living room and what he is going to say. I am always petrified as to what others will hear if my microphone is on. And I am always tense when I attend live classes.”

Clearly, the idea that education is now using the computer, phone and the internet for connecting with the student is still hard for some parents to internalise.

The pandemic has forced us to move to online education quickly. And it might be with us for quite some time. A lot of people have been talking of access to internet as a defining feature of the digital divide. It is. But, I feel, it is relatively easy to remedy. Home environment might be as big a factor, if not bigger, in making the field uneven between students. It seems to have a gender dimension as well. How are we going to address this? It will be an important issue to consider as we move forward.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2020