A decision that helps most students will hurt the few who can’t afford the tech tools to keep up during the COVID-19 crisis. A fair system is needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that in times of turmoil, decisions made for the greater good can have collateral impacts. It’s becoming evident that efforts to contain the virus and limit social distancing are increasing precarity for some people, especially those already in socio-economically disadvantaged positions. Universities are not immune to these collateral impacts, and last week’s decision by most Canadian universities to finish the current term by moving pedagogical components online is one of those times when a small segment of students will be neglected in a move meant to benefit all of them.

The decision is a show of resilience and solidarity by our higher education institutions. But the problem is the digital divide among students. Even in our great cosmopolitan country, not everyone has equal access to the web and all its resources. This digital divide was on the radar a few years ago, with a push to bring broadband to remote constituencies. But less attention has been devoted to the divide in urban settings, and especially within the hubs of knowledge that are universities.

Yet, as is becoming apparent to education professionals like me, the digital divide exists among our students, and, like everywhere else, it reflects deeper socio-economic, gender and race inequalities. Existing disparities influence who are the “haves” and “have-nots” of information and communication technology. Our universities and student bodies are a microcosm of broader society; they reflect society’s divisions. Though digital disadvantage affects Canadian students, we also have a class of students, often from abroad and often women, with little to no economic safety net in Canada, who can be more cut off from the privileges of our affluent and digitally connected world. Though they are not alone in being affected by the digital divide, they are a group of students at risk of being more hurt by the online migration of teaching components.

We have made the right decision, driven by financial reasoning and the pursuit of diversity, to open our higher education institutions to increasing numbers of international students, including from the developing world. Yet we have not always reflected on the hardships many from the Global South face once they arrive in Canada, including high tuition, lack of funding during the summertime, and their need to support dependents here and abroad, which is often the case.

A number of our students cannot afford the technology that allows full access to university resources. Some students do not have data plans or connection speeds that would allow them to follow online courses, take part in virtual meetings on platforms such as Zoom, or have access to the suite of online resources the university has for research.

A 2018 American study showed that students often have the basics such as a cellphone, but 20 percent of students had difficulties accessing information because of hardware, data limits and connectivity issues. Underprivileged groups were likelier to fall within this percentage. For some, their reality is far from the privileged student we often imagine, the one who can go home and be highly connected to all the digital university has to offer.

Do we continue to provide online courses to the many, knowingly excluding the few? How do we provide grades in a manner that is fair to all, knowing the constraints that some of our less privileged students will face in an all-digital environment?

The decision on the part of universities to move all teaching components online is thus leading to heartbreaking decisions – some of the hardest decisions I have had to make in my career. These include: Do we continue to provide online courses to the many, knowingly excluding the few? How do we provide grades in a manner that is fair to all, knowing the constraints that some of our less privileged students will face in an all-digital environment? There are no simple answers. Most professors are adopting a two-tiered strategy: teach online to the many, offer alternatives to the others. In doing so, we are unwillingly reproducing the digital divide and the deeper inequalities that undergird it.

We are working hard to make sure no one will be left behind, but remedial solutions are always second-rate. We can send summaries of online discussions to students who cannot join; we can offer to take questions by email, text or phone. But they pale next to discussions online or recordings of entire lectures.

And, of course, campus libraries, labs remain open – for now – in many cases. Some people will ask: “Couldn’t these students go to campus to avail themselves of wi-fi there or research course material on university equipment?” But with people being told to stay off campuses, this is tantamount to asking our already underprivileged students to accept greater risks to their health and their family’s health so they can keep up with connected students. I have worked in parts of Africa (Great Lakes region, Francophone West Africa) over the last 15 years, and I have seen how the burden of risk is often shifted to those who are most disadvantaged.

Universities have other alternatives, from adopting one low-tech strategy for all, assigning term papers and exams that are less reliant on access to online resources, for example, to simply cancelling the term. Different strategies are being discussed. But for now, courses continue, papers are still due and exams will take place – most of this happening electronically. Digital divide or not, students need to keep accessing information. And they will in all likelihood continue to do so as we begin talking about Spring and Summer terms going online.

To be sure, not all university policies related to COVID-19 have neglected those who face structural discrimination. Many institutions have taken charge of students in residence who cannot return home, though, as of writing, universities are being increasingly more strict about who they agree to keep on campus. But the decision to steadfastly move ahead with an online end of semester is one that reminds us instead that these great institutions of higher knowledge, which we often take be built on a mission of equality and access to all, remain built on important divides and forms of discrimination.

There is little we can do immediately to address these structural inequalities in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. But eventually we must reflect on divides, digital and other, that are woven into the very functioning of our higher education, to address this discrimination and close the digital divide.

A first step would be to cultivate a greater awareness of the structural biases our students face. Universities talk of inclusion and like to show that students are welcome, but they fall short of understanding the real constraints some students live with, and how some of these are grounded in socio-economic, gender and race inequalities.

Measures could then be put in place, for example, to fund laptops, high speed home Internet or cellular data packages for low income students living off campus. The creation of robust funding packages throughout the year could help support international students from the Global South.

The coronavirus crisis reminds us that the use of technological tools can exacerbate exclusion and inequality. Once we have cared for our sick and moved beyond the immediate emergency, we should use our momentum for action to strive for more structurally inclusive higher education institutions.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by TippaPatt.