Access to a reliable internet connection has become increasingly important over the last year, as much of day to day life switched from in person to online as the pandemic raged through the world. Yet many students have struggled with technical issues since the onset of Covid 19, with existing inequalities further entrenched by this variable digital access.
For Quentin, a first year student on the Master of Information and Communication programme at the Catholic Institute of Paris, internet connectivity and digital learning have proved significant issues in his ability to study. At the beginning of the academic year, Quentin was living in his parents’ place in a small town (Saint Martin) of the Val d’Oise (around 3 000 inhabitants), only 30km away from Paris. In early September, his faculty’s administration announced that they would alternate on-campus and online classes every other week. At first, this arrangement seemed fine; when he felt isolated during the week with online classes, he thought about the week to come where he would be on campus. He first lived this time quite happily, alternating one week with long journeys to the campus and one week at home. Mid-october, this nice arrangement came to an end because of the second lockdown. All in all, he had had 5 weeks of in-person classes by mid-october, when classes went on a full online system. The real challenges were yet to come. The move to online teaching had strong consequences for Quentin, in terms of access to higher education, quality of teaching, but also social isolation.
Technical and connection issues
The shift to online classes and remote learning has raised technical issues and put particular pressure on students from low-income and other marginalised groups. Digital education has exacerbated inequalities among students and created serious accessibility and equality issues.
Having access to technology and a stable and functional internet connection, as well as a calm environment, are necessary conditions for students to study from home. But not all higher education students can benefit from these resources.
Pre-existing disparities among students in terms of socio-economic status and territorial origin have worsened. For instance, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has reported that 20% of college students in the US have issues accessing effective technology such as working laptops and reliable high speed connection to pursue their higher education online. In particular, students living in remote or rural areas have struggled to benefit from the advantages of digital education. Cases have been reported of students unable to follow their courses because of their insufficient or unstable internet connection, inadequate resources such as laptops that bug all the time, or their impossibility to find a calm environment to study. Quentin, the student from a small French town mentioned before, shared his experience with us:
'In Saint-Martin, internet connection is an issue, even though we are only 30km from Paris. I couldn't follow five or six classes because I couldn’t log in. It was even more complicated when the teachers asked us to put the camera on, it's too heavy for my connection. Online learning also changed my access to course materials. For example, the other day it took me one hour and a half to upload a simple file.'
Some good practices have been put in place by States and universities to mitigate these issues. For example, the University of Strasbourg in France distributed more than one hundred computers to students in need and Ireland invested €15 million in IT equipment for low-income students. However, the impact of these measures is marginal and reducing the digital gap seems more important than ever.
Online teaching has also led students to spend hours in their rooms or apartments. Students’ learning conditions have been impacted by their access to a calm and adapted environment to work. Again, disparities between students from different economic backgrounds have been exacerbated, as the access to an appropriate working environment is related to socio-economic status. Indeed, going to university enables some disadvantaged students to escape the challenges of their home environment. During the lockdown, many students had to stay in tiny studios day and night, which affected their ability to study as well as their mental health.
Impact on quality and opportunity
As highlighted by a study of the International Association of Universities (IAU), 'the shift from face-to-face to distance teaching did not come without challenges, the main ones being access to technical infrastructure, competences and pedagogies for distance learning and the requirements of specific fields of study'. Indeed, online teaching may not guarantee the same level of quality compared to face-to-face education:
The quality of a class depends more than ever on the will of teachers and their familiarity with online tools. Indeed, according to the IAU report, 'the level of readiness or preparedness of teachers to lift this challenge is very diverse'. While some teachers use creative resources and adapt their teaching to an online format, others simply upload their powerpoint presentations or limit interactions with students. The lack of management structure put in place by institutions to help teachers develop their numerical skills have not ensured the continuity of quality education everywhere.
Also, the usual formidable opportunities of higher education, such as the possibility to work in student groups or to engage in student associations are limited. Quentin notes: 'It’s complicated online. We cannot debate, it’s complicated to work in a group. Understanding each other is not the same, we lose time. Something that can be done in one hour in person takes two hours on Zoom. When we are together, we are constructive, our ideas bounce off each other. This is not possible online.'
Engagement and workload
According to a report by the Australian government, 'A very large proportion of respondents commented that they did not like the experience of online learning and did not wish to ever experience it again'. Online teaching is experienced by many students as a source of suffering. Some students feel less engaged in their studies, they feel frustrated, and they have difficulties managing their workloads, which seem to have increased. As Quentin puts it: 'My whole class is fed up. We can't take it anymore. We feel like we're always working, like it never stops. The monotony of everyday life weighs on us, even though we wouldn't have realised it under normal circumstances. What is painful is that the teachers expect the same quality of work.'
The shift to online teaching has had many consequences. Low-income and marginalised students suffer the most from these changes. While inequalities already impacted the full realisation of the right to higher education, the Covid pandemic has exacerbated these disparities within the student body, especially in terms of access and quality. Online teaching limits educational opportunities for particular groups of students, who face additional obstacles which lead to further inequalities.
This pandemic shows us the need to develop policies which reduce the digital gap and improve the way online teaching is delivered. Students need to have better access to a quality higher education, but also to be better prepared and accompanied to work online, especially if our lives are to remain impacted for a long time.
This article is the second of six pieces in a series entitled 'Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective', which presents the impact of Covid 19 on higher education. Through the stories of Sasha, Iris, Fiona, Quentin, and others, we invite you to explore the wider pattern of students’ experiences, their difficulties, their distress and their doubts, in addition to the challenges faced by teachers and university staff. The article series is part of a broader project at the Sciences Po Law Clinic investigating inequalities in higher education in France, and is delivered by Inès Girard, Fiona Vanston and Elodie Faïd, three Master’s students at Sciences Po Paris working with Right to Education Initiative.
A new instalment in the series will launch each Wednesday. Find out more about our work on higher education here.
Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective
- Article 1: University students in the time of Covid-19: the sacrificed generation?
- Article 3: What happens when the ‘best years of your life’ are actually the hardest? The particular challenges faced by first-year university students during the pandemic
- Article 4: Grounded: the impact of Covid-19 on academic exchanges
- Article 5: Mental health: the silent pandemic in higher education
- Article 6: "All of my income disappeared overnight": economic precarity for students during the pandemic
Elodie Faïd - Master's student in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris
Fiona Vanston - Master's student in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris
Inès Girard - Master's student in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris