As schools and universities have transitioned online following the Coronavirus outbreak, Comment Writer Eleanor Bergin explores the problems with online learning

Written by Eleanor Bergin
Final Year English Literature and German Student Print & Features Editor

A vital flaw in the response from educators to COVID-19 has been the assumption that all students will be able to partake in and have access to online learning with ease. With the summer term taking place primarily through online classes, after the announcement that schools and universities would close to prevent the spread of the virus, the transition towards online learning hasn’t been feasible for all students and there are numerous problems with online learning. 

In some schools, 40% of students do not have a home computer, limiting accessibility and placing many at a disadvantage to their peers. Studies have also shown that only 23% of pupils took part in online classes every day during the first week of lockdown. Whether this is due to a lack of secure internet connection, a disruptive home environment or simply no motivation to partake in classes, attending online classes hasn’t been as simple as it may seem. The idea of ‘working from home’ as something easy to attain also requires an idealised home life, which offers a quiet workspace and healthy family relationships, but ultimately this isn’t the reality for everyone. As many of us struggle to stay engaged with our learning as it is, a PowerPoint online or virtual seminar can simply not offer the same level of appeal from home.   

40% of students do not have a home computer, limiting accessibility and placing many at a disadvantage to their peers

As we rely solely on our WiFi connection to communicate and acquire whatever is possibly left of our third semesters at university, the pandemic has proven the absolute necessity of technology in our everyday lives, if this wasn’t apparent already. Whilst some may lack the inclination to attend online classes, there are many students who simply don’t have the option to in the first place. As a consequence, the digital divide between households across the UK has been further exacerbated, as students from middle-class homes are twice as likely to take part in online learning than those from low-income backgrounds

This notable absence of students, however, has been a concern even before the virus came about. Last summer, the Education Policy Institute claimed that pupils from a disadvantaged background are approximately 18 months behind their peers by the age of 16, in terms of their academic achievements, highlighting the pertinence of this challenge for educators and students alike. Surely this academic split will only worsen in the current situation, limiting future prospects for students, assisted by the contrast in access to secure technology between those living in low-income and affluent areas. In this sense, the move towards online teaching is unfairly shining light upon the existing disparities between students and fuelling this divide.

The move towards online teaching is unfairly shining light upon the existing disparities between students and fuelling this divide

As a solution, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has promised free laptops for children who have either a social worker or are in care, as well as disadvantaged pupils in key academic years, including Year 10. Additionally, there has been a proposed scheme in Heston for members of the public to donate laptops, with over 100 collected so far. These attempts to fill the resource gaps are vital, with the aim to assist those who need it the most, yet we must question how effective this can be. Laptops must have up to date software for students to use, as well as an understanding on the pupil’s or parent’s behalf of how to effectively use the technology for schoolwork, which could be challenging, especially for younger children. There are also concerns around how to calculate who exactly should be given the free laptops, questioning what counts as ‘disadvantaged’, yet even then, there simply won’t be enough laptops available. Although these ‘solutions’ are welcomed, the struggle to recreate the school environment from home remains difficult to overcome. 

Amongst the efforts to compromise and help students struggling to attend online classes, not only academically but also focusing on the mental health of pupils, the transition to working from home has been undeniably ineffective for many. Although the dependence on technology remains, perhaps schools could deliver learning packages to disadvantaged students’ doors, in order to ensure that they still have the ability to make progress. Even if we can’t replicate the same sense of engagement with our studies at home, surely nobody should have to stand by and merely accept that they can’t attend their classes, emphasising the collective feeling of general incompleteness to this academic year. Although it may be easier said than done, it is necessary that, now more than ever, educators ensure that no student feels ignored and left behind.


Check out some other Comment articles about how people are having to adapt to new circumstances as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Virtual Connectivity: Can We Fully Replace Human Interaction With Websites and Apps?

Is Lockdown Forcing us to Kick Back Against our Hyper-productive Lives?

Will Flexible Working Become The New Norm?