As a professor of online learning for nearly a decade, it took years to build comfort and rapport in our virtual classrooms. In my initial online classes, I would require all students to turn their cameras on so that I could view their attentiveness and prowess for participation. When a student would refuse to turn on a camera, I would take it personally – as if I was not worthy of their time and attention.
But then, I realized something. Sitting in a classroom in RGL, we all have a form of equity in our seats. For regardless of where we return home, in that moment, we all have similar access and learning space. Hence, the need to reframe my perception of an online classroom and need for all student cameras to be turned on.
Coined the digital divide, the conversation has come to head with the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to online learning in Chinese public schools last month. The national education system was acting in a state of equality, ensuring that all pupils had access to online instruction. However; as we understand all too well in the halls of Price, equality does not equate to equity. While many students came on camera in comfortable, or at least sufficient apartments, many were unable to access the internet altogether. Some had to travel great distances, or enter other students’ homes crossing social distancing guidelines, to just access the worldwide web. And once access was granted, the dark side of both urban and rural poverty was now exposed in the students own classrooms amongst their friends and peers. For some, this was not a surprise; for others, a feeling of shame and exposure dominated their young and maturing emotions.
All eyes have been on China as they have begun reopening their society, so this conversation naturally started on their side of the Pacific. However; the digital divide, like Coronavirus, will not stay confined to the political boundaries of China nor is it a new conversation. It’s here, in our own classrooms, and something we must consider as online education becomes our entire educational realm for the foreseeable future.
We know that many students have access to our classrooms regardless of geographic location and socioeconomic backgrounds; however, we are now seeing the personal vulnerabilities of our students exposed by entering their homes through online learning. We must remember that we have been invited into their most intimate surroundings, and the equalized access to the classroom does not amount to equitable student standards and learning environments. Be kind, be patient, and remember, when a student chooses not to turn on their camera, it may not be about the classroom. It is indeed, personal.
Dr. Matthew Wheeler joined the Sol Price School of Public Policy faculty at the University of Southern California (USC) in 2012. As a part-time member of the faculty, Dr. Wheeler instructs graduate level courses in all three modalities; the USC main campus in Los Angeles, the USC State Capital Center in Sacramento and online. Read more.