Learning at home
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The country has overestimated its IT power. Universities went ahead with the new school year despite the spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19), naively believing that online materials and videoconferencing would be a solution.
But things did not work out very well. Lecturers were clumsy with or new to videoconferencing. They fumbled with equipment and software. Many videos were inaudible because they were taken without proper equipment or in unsuitable environments. Lecturers had to work over weekends to redo them. They often could not complete the lecture on time.
After they make videos, lecturers must go online according to lecture timetables to take questions from students. The work of making video materials and videoconferencing takes more time than before. Professors complain of stress and overwork.
Online lectures are often interrupted by technical hitches because of overloads at university servers. When the lecturer asks if anyone cannot hear him or her, there is no answer. They cannot tell if they are getting through to their students. Complaints pour into universities.
Things are improving a bit. Lecturers are getting more used to making video materials. Servers and communication lines are getting better through the help of telecommunications service providers.
But life with the virus is even more difficult for the less privileged. Elderly patients in hospitals or nursing homes with multiple beds in a room are vulnerable to contagion. People commuting by public transport must be ever-conscious and anxious. Many poor students cannot get free meals because dining facilities have been closed. Children who rely on free school lunches for a decent meal must go hungry because schools stay closed.
Mobile phones are no solution. Cheap boarding houses, where students reside during the school year, do not offer free Wi-Fi. Poor students cannot afford expensive monthly data packages. They cannot easily find part-time work to make extra cash as the virus has killed many jobs. Going to internet cafes is not a solution for them. As online lectures last three to four hours, college students cannot afford to buy several drinks at the cafe that each cost 5,000 won ($4) each and every day. In hard times, the digital divide grows larger.
PC cafes, which the government advises not to use for fear of infection with the coronavirus, are the only place to which poor students can go. The idea of online lectures as a solution to the virus risk has been harsher on hard-off students.
Elementary and secondary schools, whose openings have been delayed for a month, are scheduled to start their school year on April 6. During a conference with Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun over the weekend, education chiefs all opposed the opening next week. The number of underage patients confirmed infected with the virus tops 600. The Ministry of Education is proposing online classes and guidelines for remote lectures. It has looked into the infrastructure in households. It estimates about 130,000 families require assistance in equipment and infrastructure. Even with individual schools sharing some of their equipment, about 2,200 sets are short.
Even when the infrastructure becomes available, it remains to be seen if children will handle laptops and PCs well. Internet connections, the cost of telecommunication bills, and reliability of the equipment provided by schools cannot be known. If there is more than one kid in the family, how can they go online if there is only one computer?
Schooling is mandatory and free but not a magical right. Online lectures cannot fall under the category of mandatory schooling. The government has too little time — and too much work — before elementary and secondary schools can all be online. We can hardly push small children into internet cafes.