How Virtual Learning Affects Education Inequality

By Anson Wong
Published on July 5th, 2021

As the pandemic is sweeping violently across the globe, many schools are forced to shut down to prevent the spread. In order to continue teaching and keep up with the syllabus, most schools have opted to switch to online platforms to continue teaching. As of February 2021, UNESCO reported that more than 250 million students across 39 countries have their schools shut down. This accounts for 15% of the learner population worldwide.

Virtual lessons require students to have a computer, a stable internet connection and a printer for completing assignments and homework. For many low-income families, they cannot afford many of these items. To add fuel to the fire, many public services are closed, meaning that these students cannot access public printers and computers, further barring them from receiving the education they need. Many low-income families also do not have stable internet access, with some not having internet access at all. According to an interview with a single mother done by the HKCN, the interviewee’s son sometimes misses on lessons because she can only afford to pay for a cheap mobile data plan with an unstable connection. The mobile data plan also reduces data transfer speed once usage exceeds 5 gigabytes, further worsening the situation. This causes students from disadvantaged families to miss out on lessons, further widening the gap in education between kids with poor and rich backgrounds.

In addition to substandard equipment and internet connectivity, many low-income families also live under poor environments. Well-off kids get to have their own rooms to have their online lessons, kids from lower social classes do not have that privilege. They can easily be distracted by neighbors and family because of their small living space. Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School have also found that socioeconomic disadvantages could lead to a higher rate of having ADHD. A poor learning environment coupled with many kids having attention disorders, lead to disadvantaged kids paying less attention during online class, thus they absorb less content during virtual learning sessions. Learning less during lessons causes the students to have lower scores during exams, which will decrease their chances of getting better education, therefore worsening the problem of education disparity.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on the economy. In order to stay afloat, many companies had no choice but to lay off a large portion of their employees. Some companies have even gone bankrupt and had to displace all of their workers. Many parents from low-income families lost their jobs because of this, causing even more economic stress. As companies begin to decrease their workforce, the demand for employment continues to rise as more and more companies are losing their financial capabilities to sustain profit with a large workforce. This causes more competition within the job market, making it very difficult for these parents to find a new job. Furthermore, a large proportion of parents from disadvantaged families are immigrants and have low education standards, further increasing the difficulty of them obtaining a stable income to support their children. Without financial support, these families cannot afford tuition fees and to buy technology for their kids to participate in online classes. Even if they can afford to purchase these kinds of equipment, most of them are substandard compared to the things that other well-off students have, causing a serious inequality issue.

Although the pandemic has affected the education of children from disadvantaged families, many organizations and schools have put out a helping hand to those in need. The Chicago public school district has purchased 100 thousand laptops, iPads and Chromebooks for students to use at home. Organizations like EveryoneOn with their ConnectHomeUSA program, which aims to provide internet access for public housing residents all around the country. Private mobile telephone operators like Vodafone and Orange, are partnering up with UNESCO to provide free access to online education in countries such as Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even though there are a lot of efforts contributing to the cause, the problem of education inequality caused by virtual learning is still at large, considering how many learners there are around the world. The virtual divide may very well affect many people’s odds at success in the future because of their gap in education. Everyone has the right to education, and if the government does not help with this issue, the cycle of education inequality will continue to worsen because of the pandemic, affecting our future society.

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