by João Eduardo Quadros, Master in Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais.

Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Family social inequalities and remote learning

Researchers who study education and its social relations seem to have reached a consensus that the COVID-19 pandemics have severely hampered the learning experiences of millions of students in Brazil. Nevertheless, the negative impact of pandemics is far from uniform. The change from face-to-face lessons to remote learning brought into light the intense inequalities of educational opportunities in our country, deepening them like never before in Brazil’s recent history. As parents’ pedagogical support becomes even more decisive for the proper execution of school tasks at home, it is of paramount importance that we reflect on how families from different social classes are dealing with remote learning.

Organization of domestic space

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the organization of domestic space by families was already seen as an important element of learning performance. As pointed out by the researcher Cibele Carvalho (2020), studies (GOUX; MAURIN, 2005) have shown that overcrowded homes affect learning negatively to the point that they are determinant to academic failure. In a country where overcrowded housing is a reality for over 12 million people (IBGE, 2020), having an individual bedroom for appropriate privacy and concentration is an invaluable privilege. Besides, few families can equip these bedrooms with proper lighting, furniture, and useful school resources for proper remote schoolwork.

In the case of more privileged fractions of the upper class, the house organization and cleaning are facilitated by permanent or temporary housekeepers. Despite the reduction in the number of families that hire these women (SOUZA, 2020), this behavior is still a key advantage to allow these parents to keep the domestic space always clean and ready for their children to study. On the other hand, in the working class, to which housekeeping is a more common occupation, opportunities to work from home are more seldom (KRUSE, 2020), which makes keeping a close eye on children’s schoolwork and doing household chores even harder.

With remote learning, housing inequalities have intensified, forcing working-class families to improvise alternatives, such as assigning housework to their children or adapting other rooms to become spaces for study. Therefore, it is possible to notice that social and spatial conditions of domestic learning are one of the most evident symbols of Brazilian educational inequalities during the pandemics.

Technological infrastructure for remote learning

Data from research about IT resources at Brazilian homes in 2019 (COMITÊ GESTOR DA INTERNET NO BRASIL, 2020) unveiled a sad reality concerning the inequality of technological infrastructure in the country. 95% of families categorized as the upper class (Classe A) own a personal computer, as opposed to 14% of the working class (Classes D and E). In terms of hardware, this aspect is relevant for remote learning because small screen sizes, such as the ones from average mobile phones, may not be appropriate for most school tasks such as watching long lectures, researching, typing, and designing projects synchronously with classmates.

Regarding Internet infrastructure, 28% of the surveyed households do not have access to the web. This number increases to 50% if considering only working-class households (Classes D and E). The working-class families that manage to access the Internet use mobile devices exclusively. In this respect, another facet of inequality can be seen as, oftentimes, remote lessons require constant, unlimited, and high-speed connection, which are rare with mobile internet.

Also, it is not enough to have a high-end computer with fast internet access if families don’t know how to effectively use these resources for academic and pedagogical purposes. There is another layer in our inequality system which can be defined as the unequal distribution of educational digital capital. Expanding on the boudieusian notion of capital (BOURDIEU, 1986) and digital capital (GOMEZ, 2020), educational digital capital refers to the knowledge and skills to use hardware and software beyond the regular access to social media and passive consumption of digital content but to produce digital documents which are relevant for an educational and academic routine. In the context of remote learning, students must know how to use apps, online encyclopedias, reliable websites, Google Workplace for Education, Microsoft 365 for Schools, for example. It is assumed that children and teenagers, as digital natives, know how to deal with these tools, but it is increasingly noticeable that many still have difficulties with skills that transcend the ones used for social media posts.

Supervision by parents

Considering the difficulties of doing schoolwork at home in a remote learning environment, many students depend on their parents to organize their routine and deal with the new requirements of this digital world. Cultural inequalities are also seen in the form and level of support that students have from their guardians.

In terms of routine organization, middle and upper-class families tend to follow a parenting style characterized by close control and detailed management whereas working class families tend to exercise more flexible supervision of school activities and promote less structured leisure (LAUREAU, 2011). If we think about the impact of this difference on remote learning, we may consider that middle and upper-class child-rearing is closer to that expected by the school, mitigating the drastic changes of not having the strong institutional control as in face-to-face lessons.

Homework supervision must also be taken into account although inequalities in terms of homework support are not something exclusive of the remote learning environment. According to the researcher Tânia Resende (2012), homework is a mirror of educational and social inequalities. Parents with few years of study tend to have more difficulties and less time to support their children in homework than parents who did not have the opportunity to finish Higher Education, for instance.

In our current situation, parental support of remote school tasks can take many forms such as helping their children to use technological devices and assisting them in understanding test instructions or a specific curricular component. Remote lessons, especially synchronous ones, have demanded that parents get much closer to their children and the school. However, not all parents have the necessary knowledge, skills, or availability to help their children. Remote lessons have certainly added an extra layer of exhaustion for all the parents but some, especially the more educated and wealthier, have more cultural and material tools to cope with it.

Laws and public policies about remote learning.

          The necessity of remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemics unprecedentedly worsened inequalities of educational opportunities in Brazil. Beyond the discussion about the closure or opening of schools, educational practices by families are at the core of the process of production and reproduction of social inequalities.

          Law projects (BRASIL, 2020) and public policies of infrastructure development, from computers to equipment for internet connection, as done by the Maranhão (STHWART, 2021) and Ceará (AUGUSTO, 2020) governments have become increasingly more necessary, but they are not sufficient. Projects to give parents the proper conditions to stay at home, supporting their children’s schoolwork at home, are also crucial.

          Besides, policymakers and schools cannot take for granted that families have the infrastructure and knowledge to properly support their children. Families need to be welcomed and assisted with their academic and technological difficulties so that they can overcome the hardships of remote learning more fairly. Only with collective, coordinated, and multidimensional projects we can mitigate the educational inequalities posed by the pandemics.


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