Irina Raicu is the director of Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
Earlier this year, a report showed that income inequality in Silicon Valley had reached a record high. That was before the pandemic hit and worsened the situation. Now, as schools reopen in Silicon Valley as elsewhere, many students are back to attending class online. And some are forced to invite their teachers and classmates to look into their homes, even if they would prefer not to.
The benefits and drawbacks of online learning play out differently in kindergarten, grade school, middle school, and high-school classes. Some ethical issues related to the technology that enables them, however, cut across all of them. One of those issues is the use of video cameras.
In the Bay Area, a recent KTVU report highlighted a lack of consistency in the rules—and lack of consensus on the norms—which frame the requirement that a student be on camera during the whole time that he or she is in class. Some parents, students, and educators interviewed felt that the mandatory camera use promoted attendance and helped students pay attention. Others noted the fact that the always-on requirement was deeply problematic for some students—in other words, that the mandate was unfair.
The justice/fairness ethical perspective focuses on the distribution of benefits and burdens. In this case, one teacher quoted by KTVU argued that some students who are less well off might not want to “share” their surroundings with classmates whose homes look very different. She added that multiple siblings “could be sharing a kitchen table, some might be homeless and logging on from their car, while others have to go into their parents' work to sign into the class.” And she also noted that, for students who don’t have access to broadband and have to use cell phones for class, keeping the camera on at all times also has a real cost in terms of data usage.
Thus, while the use of cameras for online learning has benefits, its attendant burdens fall more heavily on already disadvantaged students.
Earlier this month, Santa Clara County announced a donation of 7.1 million dollars to help address the educational digital divide. Board of Supervisors president Cindy Chaves pointed out that, even in Silicon Valley, “[t]housands of students don’t have access to the Internet because they don’t have WiFi, they don’t have computers or tablets or even a cell phone to learn from home.” The San Jose Mercury news reported, however, that most of the donation is earmarked for “computing devices.” That important infusion of funding therefore does address part of the digital divide, but it can’t answer directly the additional fairness questions raised by the mandating of camera usage during class.
In some areas of the country, where access to the internet is even more inadequate, students, parents, and educators might not even have the luxury of struggling with this concern. In areas with great social inequality, however, parents and kids need to consider the fact that their circumstances might be very different than those faced by some of their neighbors and classmates.
At the beginning of pandemic-related restrictions, only a few months ago, we often heard rallying cries about all of us being “in this together.” We still are, of course—but “together” doesn’t mean “in the same way.” Just as we acknowledge that some people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, more “essential” by virtue of their jobs and professions, or more responsible for the response by virtue of their roles in society, we also need to acknowledge that some people are more negatively impacted by online education—and in particular by the requirement that students be on camera the whole time while in class.
This impact risks magnifying the unfairness. The KTVU report about cameras in online classrooms was titled “Privacy v. Community”—but perhaps the best way to build the latter is by educating all students about the multifaceted needs of their real community.