Virtual Reality: Offline Means Left Behind

Hassan Merali // Columnist

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of daily life in March 2020, educational institutions were faced with a question: how will educators continue to deliver classes and other services when people can’t be in the same room together? Students and faculty were three-quarters of the way through courses that had already been paid for and funded. The end of the academic term was near, and students and faculty wanted certainty about how they would continue to learn and work. With few other options available, post-secondary institutions across Canada made a consequential decision—shift everything online. 

Lectures, labs, assignments, tests, quizzes, and exams—everything went online. Even group projects went online (you’re excused if a shudder just went down your spine). It’s where much of modern post-secondary education takes place anyway. Almost all post-secondary institutions offer some fully online classes, and many have “mixed mode” classes that are half online, half in person. Even classes held in person must normally access resources and “fourth-hour” activities on eLearn. 

From an administrative perspective, it was a familiar method of course delivery that could be expanded from some courses to all of them. With the unfamiliar nature of an evolving public health emergency and the challenge of hosting in-person classes that would comply with public health orders, it’s hard not to empathize with academic leadership here—there literally wasn’t much else they could do. Regardless, we should examine the cost of technology for accessing basic services at school. 

If you were to look around the Capilano University Library on any given day pre-pandemic, you’d see tables full of students working on their laptops. But you’d also see many students working at one of the desktop computers available for use. For some students, those computers are the only way to get schoolwork done. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of thinking that every student has access to a device and a reliable Internet connection, but not everyone has that privilege.

You can get cheap laptops for a couple hundred bucks that handle basic word processing and connect to the Internet, but those are slow and typically struggle to run more than one program at a time. A laptop with enough memory and processing power to handle the demands of modern school life costs around $1,000.

Although some internet service providers lifted data caps because of the pandemic, home Internet plans are still costly for the average student. Cheap Internet plans in Vancouver start at $25 per month, but barebones plans like that often have data caps and very low download and upload speeds. For reference, the BC Government says something like remote education requires a minimum internet speed of 6-15 megabytes per second (mbps) both ways. This becomes important for online lectures, where some instructors require students to keep their cameras on to verify attendance. 

There are supports for students, allowing Internet access and a device to work on, but they’re limited. Through its Internet for Good program, the CSU partnered with TELUS to provide subsidized Internet access for up to 200 students. Under this program, students can receive Internet for only $9.95 per month with download speeds up to 25 mbps, but they must apply and demonstrate financial need. The CSU has a program called Device Doctor, where repair services are provided for free and students only pay for parts. For students without a device at all, the IT Help Desk in the library has some laptops available for long term loans.

When my laptop broke at the start of the Fall 2019 term, I didn’t have the money to get a new one that was halfway decent, so I decided to save and wait. Being without a computer was a situation I thought I’d never find myself in. For six months, I used my phone and the desktop computers at school to do my assignments. It gave me a whole new level of appreciation for the number of available computers on campus, and how late they keep some of those computer labs open (again, pre-pandemic). Not having a computer is a tenuous situation in normal times. During a pandemic when everyone is relying on digital technology and communications services for everything from school, to doctors appointments, to socializing and dating, it’s practically untenable.

It’s also a situation that’s probably been worsened by the economic pain caused by the pandemic. Many students work service jobs that no longer provide sufficient income due to the public health situation. Service workers receive fewer hours, less in tips, and can no longer rely on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Although the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) helped many get through the summer, up to $1,250 or $2,000 a month doesn’t replace the amount students would have earned if they were working full-time. And the proposed Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program that sought to pay students for volunteering never materialized because of the Trudeau-WE Charity controversy. 

Factoring in the cost of living in Metro Vancouver, alongside the fact that many students have to support themselves, it’s not hard to see how some students are not on a level playing field when it comes to technology. Many have predicted a shift to a more digital education for a while now, and if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that events like a pandemic accelerate transformations already underway. We don’t have to ever move to a completely online educational experience, but if we do, more support will be needed to make sure that those who are offline don’t get left behind.

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