As Universities Zoom To The Future, They Leave Behind Marginalized Students
Solving one problem created numerous others for students with marginalized identities.
On Monday, March 16, the Berkeley Haas administration notified us that classes would be going remote, by Wednesday I was taking my first Negotiations class via Zoom and by Friday evening I was already on a plane back to Philadelphia. As COVID-19 continues to ravage the country and “some colleges are preparing (quietly) to deliver better online learning at scale if needed,” now seems like an excellent time to discuss remote learning’s effects on the most marginalized students.
As a second year MBA, I was excited for my last semester. One of my most anticipated classes was actually an independent study. My professor and I operated the independent study like a book club and sought to understand the effects of emerging technology on marginalized populations in urban environments. While I majored in biomedical engineering and have always been interested in STEM, this was my first opportunity to study technology at the intersections of public policy, urban planning and business. More than that, I was studying alongside a professor with a rare mix of academic expertise, professional experience and an open mind. It was a dream come true. However, at the time, I had no idea how relevant the course would become for my entire experience at Haas.
Our move to Zoom-supported learning, while quick and relatively seamless, played out differently in all of my classes. Unsurprisingly, my independent study wasn’t impacted much. One-on-one conversations are the easiest to transfer to a virtual format. However, I didn’t expect to have the same seamless experience in Negotiations. I loved the course and professor but never imagined a class so heavily reliant on discussion and mock negotiations could do well on Zoom. With the help of an amazing teaching assistant, our professor somehow managed to maintain the structure and substance of the class. I was more than pleasantly surprised but my heart sank when I realized I had to do it too.
As a co-facilitator for the student-run class, Dialogues on Race, I had the combined responsibilities of a student and a professor. I had to keep up with my classes while also bringing an incredibly personal and intense class into a virtual format. I worked with my partner, and a larger team, to radically alter the structure, material and concept of the course to fit a virtual format. Meanwhile, classes that didn’t transfer as well to a virtual format only added to my stress. Some courses suffered from the professors’ lack of tech savvy while others simply didn’t make as much sense in the midst of an economic and social collapse. For the most part though, things carried on as usual. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was exactly the problem. Specifically, it was the ease with which our entire educational experience was transferred to Zoom’s platform that made me so uncomfortable. I was seeing how this emerging technology was impacting marginalized students in real time.
This discomfort is not new for me. I’ve been acutely aware of it since ninth grade and amorphously for my entire life. It’s the discomfort produced from having each foot in two different worlds. For high school, I was lucky to attend Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC on full scholarship. Yes, the famous DC school that has educated some of the most privileged children in the world. While I was surrounded by this privilege, my mother spent 10 months in federal prison. She was locked up my entire sophomore year.
At Brown University, I recognized the same privilege I had seen in high school. Sidwell may have prepared me for the culture and academic rigor of an Ivy, but I was not prepared to be called the “n-word” by locals or have a friend and mentor be assaulted by the cops. Now, I’m about to graduate from a top MBA program and am taking my final coursework via Zoom. At the same time, my mother has been transformed from “unskilled” to “essential.” Politicians and pundits call workers in her situation “heroes” while disgruntled customers spit at her because her store is out of toilet paper. My partner’s mother is in a similar situation and she has already lost extended family in the Bronx to COVID-19. Every day more information comes out about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Black and brown communities all over the country. To say I was “distracted” feels inadequate and doesn’t grasp the magnitude of the situation.
Yet, my independent study somehow still held my attention. It was also surreal to watch the disparate impacts of technology I was reading about in books play out in real time. For instance, in Uneven Innovation: The Work of Smart Cities, Jennifer Clark explains the way emerging technologies are exacerbating and entrenching existing power dynamics. Clark even places this “uneven innovation” within the larger historical context of American urban development. Disparate impact was an explicit and implicit goal, not just a consequence, of redlining in Chicago and Robert Moses’ work in the New York metropolitan area. Both dynamics existed primarily to meet the needs of one privileged community while locking out other marginalized ones. I observed the same dynamic playing out with Haas’ Zoom transition.
Solving one problem created numerous others for students with marginalized identities. We were experiencing normal MBA stress along with the stress of trying to find a quiet place to Zoom for hours on end, adjusting to living and learning in different time zones, and supporting family members who had lost jobs or were forced to work with no protection. These were just some of the problems exacerbated by Zoom.
I already know classmates that have lost family members to COVID-19, and many look like me. Throughout the country, while some people are demanding rights without responsibility, Black people can’t wear masks, help the homeless or even go for a run without attracting suspicion, abuse and violence. For students like myself, remote learning simply layers over these dynamics, creating even more logistical, emotional, intellectual and psychological stress.
The purported “seamlessness” of the University’s transition to Zoom was mirrored in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov. In this book, Morozov laments the tech industry’s perpetual prioritization of efficiency over the more complicated goal of improving the human experience. According to Morozov, friction is an important part of human development and bypassing it can prevent us from seeing, considering and grappling with the complex systems supporting our societies. That is exactly what I experienced with Haas’ Zoom transition — it was precisely the “ease'' of the transition that was so problematic.
By swiftly and seamlessly implementing a Zoom-based learning model, Haas missed an opportunity to consider the larger implications of COVID-19 and our response. By simply delaying classes for a week or two, we could have asked ourselves important questions. What do we lose by transferring from in-person to virtual learning? What are the privacy implications? What effects will COVID-19 have on the future of business? What can we learn from the failure of different economic models and systems in the face of the pandemic? What do the disparate impacts of COVID-19 mean for the Haas community itself? What responsibility do we have as MBAs and future business leaders to address these disparities? Instead of being forced to grapple with these questions, Zoom enabled the Haas community to simply continue business as usual. The same is true for many other organizations. As a result, some of the most intelligent, capable and privileged individuals in the world are being lulled into a false sense of security. This is a privilege marginalized communities have never been able to afford.
Now that schools are in summer recess and administrators are urgently planning for the fall, this is the perfect time to think critically about the type of educational experience we want students to have. All administrators should be actively engaging with their most vulnerable student populations to understand what they need and how schools can best support them. Crucially, all school administrators must understand that every class is not a simple one for one transfer. Different classes have different requirements and, in order to serve all students equally, educators need to understand those differences and, if possible, mitigate them. However, we should all remember that, no matter how good our virtual interface gets, some things will always be lost in the transition.