Online education can strand the disadvantaged on a Pacific island

Even students on remote atolls face familiar problems around inequitable access to the internet and family support, says Geoff Goodman

June 9, 2020
Old computer on beach
Source: Getty

In the Republic of the Marshall Islands, people still go to stores and touch everything. Hugs and handshakes are common. We have unprotected intimate interactions with door handles.

Yet, even here, on this series of 29 small atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Covid-19 has raised issues for higher education that reverberate on distant shores.

I teach at the US-funded and accredited College of the Marshall Islands, the only college based in the country. (There is also a branch of the University of the South Pacific.) The main campus is at the urbanised end of the capital island, Majuro, home to about 28,000 of its 58,000 inhabitants.

Since the beginning of this year, I have happily been one of those 28,000. I love it here. I can walk from my house on the lagoon side to the ocean in about two minutes, and I have a dream job. We all want to be in a place where we can help and empower people – and the school is remarkably focused on empowerment.

Our classes remained face-to-face throughout the spring semester since there were no confirmed Covid-19 cases on the island. Then, in April, the college president used a faculty meeting to announce that courses were finally going to move online because there was a suspected case. Some faculty gasped and grumbled. What about internet access? For many here, home access is not an option.

But, in this, we are far from unique. Internet access has become the widest of new economic divides not just in the developing world but also in parts of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and other countries with remote communities. Although it is hard to get reliable figures for the Marshall Islands, one telecom worker estimated that far fewer than half the population have access.

I got my students ready for the online switch as best I could and we braced for the following week. Students would still have internet access on campus, so I thought they just might commit. They responded to the news on the online switch with shrugs.

The following Monday – when we were first supposed to go online – the college’s plans changed. We were all still to stay in class after all: the suspected Covid-19 case had turned out negative. My classes were already online, however, so I made the in-class component optional.

The first week opened to a smattering of interaction, which soon drifted into silence, except for one student. He was thrilled to be online and immediately went from a D student to an A+ one. Otherwise, however, online work was very late, when it came in at all.

Faculty have many theories about low participation rates. Students are unable to come because of family responsibilities that can change daily. Parents get new work schedules or have to move to other islands, so some students have to stay home and take care of younger siblings and cousins.

My students had come into college for those of their classes that remained face-to-face. Desperate to involve them, I took to patrolling the campus to get them to do their homework. This worked well. Some even seemed to come to life and smile when I brought up the threat of punishment. (I like having them clean up the campus with me.)

Daily emails and Google Hangouts also helped. Some students seemed to revel in asking the same questions over and over and getting me to explain the assignments I had already described more clearly in Moodle. They would do some of it, have me check it and it would be great. Ten minutes later, someone would pipe up: “Geoff, about assignment four. How do I do it?”

This is probably unsurprising. As a shy 18-year-old, I think I would also have found it comforting or even fun to have a professor who was endlessly patient with me in a chat window. Participation rates picked up. At the end of the semester, pass rates were not great but comparable to other instructors’ classes.

Yet the broad picture remained clear: while some students improved online, others stopped participating. This seems to mirror what has happened elsewhere. In my previous position as an instructor in Alabama, some of the counties we drew most of our students from have average annual household incomes of less than $25,000 (£20,000). The issues facing disadvantaged communities everywhere, as education moves online, are alike (and are being magnified by the pandemic): internet access, cultural literacy and financial support from families.

Over the past two centuries, the Marshall Islands have been occupied by Germany, Japan and the US; the last also tested 42.2 megatons of nuclear weapons here. When Covid-19 does finally arrive, I worry that the good intentions of our dedicated faculty will not be enough to protect the progress the Marshallese people have made in rebuilding social and economic systems after the years of colonial rule and foreign cultural traditions.  

Student accommodation, media literacy and internet access remain absolute requirements for success. If the pandemic cuts off students’ access to the internet, the gaps we as instructors dream of narrowing will widen, with the most at-risk students falling through. That is as true here, in this beautiful place, as it is everywhere else in the world.

Geoff Goodman is an English teacher in the liberal arts department of the College of the Marshall Islands, a US-accredited and funded community college.

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