Opinion

For Students, Online Classes is Only For the Privileged

Online classes is the new socioeconomic divide.
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Before the lockdowns and the curfews happened, driving at night through barely-lit backroads in rural areas would guarantee running into teenagers huddled by the side of the road or perhaps lounging on the concrete benches of a closed sari-sari store. One could be forgiven to assume the stereotype: local truants out drinking perhaps or a late-night card game. But another glance would show these kids to be holding only their smartphones, innocently playing an online game or scrolling through Facebook—normal things that we otherwise do in the comfort of our own homes. But for these kids in the provinces, being out in the streets at night has become more of a necessity. Often, these are the only open spaces where it would be possible to acquire a decent data signal.

Such a scene is reminiscent of the plight of the characters in the Oscar’s Best Picture film Parasite where two siblings, desperate to access some free Wi-Fi after having their service disconnected, find themselves cooped inside the cramped bathroom of their basement home looking for a spot where they could access a neighbor’s. Hailed for its anti-capitalist message and its stark depiction of the divide between social classes, the movie exhausts seemingly simple everyday imagery to drive home its message. Take, for example, the kind of existence suggested by the below-street level view from inside the house, or the bowl of cheap noodles topped with expensive prime beef meant to juxtapose social class polarities. But it was the importance of Internet access that became the benchmark for the Kim family’s improving economic conditions. When their Wi-Fi service was finally restored, it became a cause for celebration, warranting a toast over dinner in a show of deeply-felt gratitude.

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Online access it seems, has become the new dividing line between the privileged and underprivileged.

When before, being able to afford dorm rent or books was key to attending college, today getting hold of an education seems to have become increasingly dependent on whether one has a stable Internet connection—a new prerequisite in a world where Google search has replaced library research, video projects have taken over written reports, and academic requirements aren’t handed in the following day but are rather e-mailed within the last 10 minutes before midnight.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and shut down schools one after another in the Philippines, the Internet as a means for home-based distance learning seemed to be a viable option. But within only the first week of the quarantines, students from colleges and universities, first across Manila and then all over Luzon, started calling out for the suspension of online classes, echoing a common sentiment for the need to be more inclusive for those less fortunate—students and faculty alike—who have unreliable connections or none at all, or who lack the needed hardware for video conferencing, or who might have to share a single gadget among many family members. 

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Polls and petitions quickly spread and affected students and even parents took to their own social media accounts to protest and reason out against their schools’ respective online policies. Doing online academic work during these times would require some students to go out of their homes and break quarantine, to risk being infected in computer shops, cafes, or neighbors’ houses, or to find themselves in awkward situations with a laptop propped open out on the sidewalk or in open fields, exhausting expensive and crucial mobile data.

Response was quick and generally favorable to the students. The Commission of Higher Education (CHED) immediately released a statement urging schools to exercise leniency. For some campuses that opted for a middle ground instead of a complete online suspension, a compromise came in the form of an “asynchronous” system—which, roughly interpreted, means that students are to conduct their learning at their own pace using what means are available to them. Deadlines for requirements are to be postponed indefinitely until classes can resume.

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But even this middle ground was not exempt from student backlash. Such was the case when a university publication, The Lasallian, of De La Salle University Manila (DLSU) ran the editorialSkewed representation” defending the reflexivity of an asynchronous setup and calling out students for being unwilling to compromise to a system meant “to achieve something over nothing.” As a result, students were quick to charge The Lasallian for analyzing the situation from a “privileged position” and criticized its dismissal of the results of student surveys. Giving in to reader pressure, the editorial was taken down the following day and an apology issued.

To be fair, The Lasallian’s initial stand was not without some valid arguments. To be more blunt in reiterating what it said, the editorial was pointing to a very plausible danger in the surveys themselves, i.e. how do we know that some students are not just lying about claiming to have bad Internet access at home, just so they could ride a majority vote in the hopes of getting a “free pass”? After all, having such a survey would be just like asking a class indirectly if they would like to have a lecture or if they would like to go home an hour early! (Anyone who has ever attended school knows what the most likely response will be.) It doesn’t help either that the notion of students attending one of the most expensive schools in the country falling along the demographic of those likely to have problems with a Wi-Fi connection, seems deserving of a little skepticism. I admit it to be stereotyping, but the gap between the online capability of students in a school like DLSU compared to a public college in some remote municipality is perhaps a little too obvious.

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And it is this same obviousness that is a more pressing general fact. Even if a supposed percentage of students did exaggerate the instability of their bandwidths (not just in DLSU but in surveys all over the country), the huge economic divide among Filipinos is too readily acknowledged as an ever-present problem, the surveys already superfluous to arrive at the point. Even if some schools can conduct online classes, it doesn’t mean so many others will be able to as well. There will be schools left behind—schools in the thousands, students in the millions.

We have always been aware of the gaps between the rich and poor, and it is a terrible thing that it takes a pandemic to remind us sometimes how easily we can take even the little things for granted. 

How the crisis is unfolding, however, threatens to bring the discussion beyond the question of online access. Going into the third week of the lockdowns, more than 2,000 confirmed cases, no end in sight, too little headway into coming up with a concrete strategy and the lack of transparency from the government aren’t exactly points that combine into the kind of climate conducive for any meaningful education to take place. As student anxiety and stress levels accumulate with each new disappointing headline, it only seems unfair, perhaps even inhumane, to expect students to respond adequately to any kind of academic work (and be graded for it!) Only when the government is already doing its job well enough to afford everyone some measure of peace of mind should online classes be amenable with at all. Not when social unrest or a military takeover is a likely scenario week after week. 

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As with access to education, being able to log online has already been acknowledged as a universal human right. And when governments cannot provide the economic conditions that would assure its citizens decent Internet access, then we only have our governments to blame yet again for why despite the unlimited connectivity already possible in our time, continuing the education of our youth in the midst of the pandemic remains only a privilege not accorded to everyone.

On another note, we too are being reminded that for all our technological advances, genuine human interaction remains central to any kind of learning. A screen can be a necessary learning aid, but it cannot and will never ever hope to replace the classroom, the proximity and the sincerity it allows for teachers and fellow learners alike. That when this crisis is all over, and everyone has to shuffle back inside when the bell rings is perhaps this generation’s great equalizer. Once seated (hopefully sooner rather than later), how strong your Internet connection is doesn’t matter as much anymore.  

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Derik Cumagun
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