When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, millions of students around the world were forced to convert their bedrooms into classrooms, upsetting both personal and household routines. The rise of the virtual classroom has ushered in new standards of social etiquette.
“Make sure everything is super presentable,” Jeremias Figueroa PO ’22 said. “That notion itself does kind of permeate through normal Zoom etiquette in general.”
Online education has forced opposing public and private domains to converge along rocky lines, but the fact is that houses weren’t designed to be classrooms. Personal elements of life can be exposed through Zoom, bringing in nuanced facets of family, class and privacy into academic spheres.
Before renting out his own room a month ago, Figueroa lived with his family in a small apartment in Chicago. Every day was an ongoing struggle to coexist with his three younger siblings, each operating on entirely different school schedules with only one quiet space to spare: the basement.
“Someone had to be kicked out,” Figueroa said. “Sometimes it was myself or sometimes it was my sister. So basically it was a battle between who actually would get the quiet space.”
For Kimberlin Huang PO ’24, living with five other family members means the fear of intrusion into her learning space is ever present, forcing her to take extra precautions to ensure the quality of her education.
“I have this little post-it note that I put on my door that says I’m in class, or I text the family group chat,” Huang said.
Noise is also a primary concern; it’s neither comfortable nor practical when the sounds of one’s personal life are audible within the classroom, but sometimes it’s unpreventable — family members simply must conduct day-to-day tasks around the house as required by their normal lives.
As a first-generation student coming from a low-income household, Linda Phan PO ’24 resorted to taking classes in her closet and even bathroom when sharing a room in a tiny apartment proved difficult. With her brother often practicing oboe while she attempted to do homework, there was no way she could focus.
“I would step out when the house was super unmanageable, but I guess when winter comes around that’s not gonna be feasible,” Phan said. “I would take classes in my bathroom because that was the quietest spot.”
Online schooling has cast the issue of equity into the equation, with students in large and/or low-income households disproportionately impacted by the transition. Members of these households not only greatly depend on each others’ schedules in order for the entire family to function, but are also commonly unable to afford their own quiet spaces conducive to productive learning and working.
“I’d also be self-conscious, I guess, comparing yourself to other students who have their own room, or their parents have an office they can go into,” Phan said.
When educational environments become a privilege of class, resulting disparities can be taxing on students’ mental health and their capacity to learn. Joseph Brennan, director of support services for Pomona College’s information technology services, explained that his team has been working to alleviate the stress of digital inequality for those in need of technological support and resources.
“In addition to the MacBook Air laptops and hotspots, we have been providing USB cameras and USB microphones to students,” Brennan said via email. “We’ve also been providing mics, adapters, and cables. We’ve provided over 225 hotspots to Pomona students and over 140 laptops.”
Yet, there are issues that cannot be solved with technology — most evidently, housing inequity. To help students offset costs for housing and miscellaneous needs, Pomona has provided financial support to students on scholarships through the form of refunds, according to the college’s coronavirus information page for students. But some feel there is untapped potential for the support to go beyond the dollars.
While Phan was eventually able to move out on stipend funding, she relied heavily on friends and family to figure out the steps to acquiring housing, paying rent and getting groceries. Students without proper financial literacy might struggle to find such a network, even with large sums of money at their disposal.
“If you’re a student who’s houseless with no parental support and then you have all this money and no guidance on how to use it, how is that going to help you?” Phan said.
Perhaps what’s more important, though, is ensuring conversation between peers and faculty alike to normalize the special circumstances the community is facing. Pomona has created the Online Teaching and Learning Committee to investigate how faculty can promote inclusion in online education, tackling topics such as how to facilitate discussion about sensitive topics differently to accommodate students in environments where they may be heard by other household members. Additionally, some professors have gone the extra mile to record classes and outline adjusted policies and expectations in their syllabi.
Opening the door to dialogue between different groups is a potential avenue toward improving classroom environments, according to Phan: “If students are given a space to talk about their remote learning experiences, then it’s less embarrassing and stigmatized because other students aren’t alone.”
While conversation is important, there are tangible actions faculty can take now. “Keep doing recordings of class and making sure they’re accessible. Every single professor should be doing that,” Figueroa said.
Online education has become the reality of the current time, and that means there is a need to grow with the circumstances.
“Just because we’re online doesn’t mean we can’t teach,” said associate Dean of the College Anne Dwyer, who is also a German and Russian professor. “It’s still professors who teach, it’s still students who learn, it’s still students who teach each other.”