Virtual resources, real inequalities: experiences of online education in Rio
Author: Marina Frid, a postdoctoral researcher in Communication and Culture at UFRJ, Brazil. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fieldsite: I am staying in touch with a group of 18 informants who live and work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and are quarantining in different parts of the city and the surrounding metropolitan area. From my home in Rio, I am interviewing them over the phone, Skype and WhatsApp video calls.
The ENEM controversy
The Brazilian educational system is marked by inequalities that reproduce the complexities and contradictions of the country’s history and socioeconomic structures. Some of these inequalities have begun to be mitigated over the last fifteen years, at least in public universities, through affirmative action policies directed toward low-income, black and indigenous students. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made already existing vulnerabilities and imbalances even more palpable.
Political disputes and the federal government’s response to the health crisis have fuelled all sorts of controversies in different spheres, including in education. For instance, one controversial topic widely covered on the news was the postponement of the National High School Exam (ENEM), which is the entrance exam for all federal universities since 2013 and accepted in the admissions process of hundreds of public and private institutions in Brazil and Portugal.
In 2017, Brazil had 2,448 higher education institutions, 87.9% of which are private. Though there are many small colleges and institutes, most students, about 53%, were enrolled in the country’s 199 universities. About half of those universities are public and gratuitous. Moreover, the majority of Brazilian universities that figure in quality and/or prestige rankings are run by the federal and state governments. This means that many candidates aspire to be admitted to public universities not only because they are free, but also because they are among the country’s most prestigious and best-evaluated institutions. Though entry depends solely on test scores, the competition is not all that fair due to disparities in access to quality schooling.
The Brazilian school system relies on public (gratuitous) and private (paid) institutions. Public schools can be under the responsibility of either municipal, state or the federal governments. Though most students in the country go to public schools, a higher percentage of students that move on to higher education come from private institutions. Only 36% of public-school students go to college according to a 2018 study. Among private school students, the percentage rises significantly to 79%. This discrepancy can be related to many factors, among which are the unequal conditions of candidates in preparing for admissions exams.
Hence, ENEM, the major higher education entry exam in the country, is susceptible to generating strains and divergences in public debate. As soon as the call to register for the exam was published, students, teachers and diverse organisations began to request its postponement. The exam was scheduled to take place in early November. Besides the uncertainty about the public health situation later in the year, a central concern is the preparation of candidates.
In mid-April, the Federal Public Defender (DPU) presented a civil action against the organizers of ENEM that requested its rescheduling in light of the pandemic.  A federal judge accepted the civil action and determined the ENEM calendar should be rearranged given that in-person classes had been suspended all over the country.
Reacting to the civil action and the court order, the Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of president Jair Bolsonaro, posted a series of incendiary comments on Twitter. He accused the National Student Union (UNE) of promoting the movement pro-postponement of ENEM, a measure that, in his view, would add another “brick in the authoritarian wall under construction” and make five million youths lose a year without classes nor jobs. In a post on 18 April, 2020, he pointed out that 70% of the 3,200,000 candidates that requested fee waiver in registering for ENEM did it by using a smartphone. A couple of days later, he positioned himself against delaying the exam in another post that had a sceptical tone:
“They claim that many will die of corona (exam is in November). They claim students are not having classes (quarantine ends in a few weeks). They claim the poor without internet will be harmed (registration is done over the internet and 3,200,00 “poor” people have already requested fee waiver over the internet).”
That is, the minister did not believe the pandemic would be so harmful for the preparation of students, including lower-income ones, as to justify changing the exam dates. Given his resistance, the controversy was prolonged well into May. During an interview for CNN Brazil on the 15th, Weintraub said, “ENEM is not made to address social injustices, but to select the best people, the most capable to become the future doctors, engineers, nurses…”. In his view, those who are really poor were already excluded from access to the internet, proper schooling and, therefore, ENEM, before the pandemic.
In another post on Twitter, on 6 May, Weintraub defended his position with statistics about ENEM candidates in 2019. According to the numbers, of the five million candidates, 28% were actually finishing high school. Most of them, 58.7%, were no longer in school when they registered for the exam, while 12% were second-year high school students that did the exam just to practice. From the minister’s perspective, these numbers and the fact that candidates were able to register online showed there was no need to push ENEM to a later date.
A 2019 survey shows that 93% of households in Brazil have cell phones, but only 27% have portable computers, 19% have desktops and 14% have tablets. In urban areas, 75% of households have internet access, while the percentage drops to 51% in rural areas. Over 90% of families that earn more than 3 minimum wages (MW) per month have internet access at home, but numbers drop to 69% among families with an income between 1 and 2 MW and 55% for those that earn up to 1 MW. Overall, among those households that do have access to the internet, 61% have fixed broadband connection and 27% rely on mobile connection via modems or 3G/4G SIM cards. Among lower-income households, however, 40% have fixed broadband connection and 42% have a mobile connection.
On May 19th, the Senate approved the postponement of ENEM almost unanimously. The only senator who voted against the proposition was Flavio Bolsonaro, the president’s son. The matter would still have to be considered by the lower house of Congress, but the political pressure led Weintraub to change his position. Just one day after the Senate’s vote, the minister announced that ENEM would be postponed for 30 to 60 days. From 20 to 30 June, an online poll will allow registered candidates to vote on their preferred dates for the new calendar.
Inequalities in online schooling
I did not interview anyone who was going to take ENEM or who had children preparing for it. But, some of my informants did share experiences that reveal challenges to online schooling during the pandemic and paint a more nuanced picture than the straightforward statistics.
Silvia is a computer technology teacher at a state-run foundation in Duque de Caxias that offers free vocational schooling, various courses and preparatory programs for different exams, including ENEM. The foundation is closed since mid-March due to the pandemic. All classes were suspended. From her point of view, transferring classes to online platforms was not really a solution, because the majority of her students are low-income and do not have proper internet access at home. In early June, the foundation launched five online 6-week courses on digital technology and entrepreneurship. Preparatory classes for ENEM, however, are still unavailable as are other regular programs of the foundation.
Lisa’s nephew has been using her smartphone to do his distance school activities. He uses his mother’s phone as well, but Lisa’s has better internet connection for doing research. They have no computer. In the city of Nova Iguaçu, where they live, the City Hall planned two schemes to offer online alternatives to students of municipal schools. Middle-school students (6th to 9th year) have access to an online platform where they can download materials for all disciplines, watch live classes every day and interact with teachers. For primary (1st to 5th year) and high school students (10th to 12th year), as for adult education, schools send links over WhatsApp to Google Drive folders through which they can download class materials to study on their own. Lisa’s nephew, who is 17 years old, is on the second scheme. He interacts with teachers and classmates via a WhatsApp group.
“He’s not liking it very much, ’cause it’s complicated. (…) They’re kind of managing it. Well, they do everything over cell phone. They have a WhatsApp group, I think, and the teachers send them things to read, for research, homework. So, it’s up to the student to be interested. I always say to him, ‘You have to do it. It’s boring, but it’s you who should be interested’. There are people who don’t have internet. Here we don’t have a computer. If he wants to do research, he uses my cell phone.”
Lisa explained her nephew “saves” the internet on his cell phone just for receiving and sending messages to his teachers. Some of his peers cannot pay for internet access for the entire month and miss out on school work – “It’s expensive, you know? It’s very expensive. Sometimes the money is over and you have to wait till the other month”. Her nephew told her a teacher took two points from a classmate that did not do an assignment. “I think that was bad”, she said about the teacher’s decision, because it is hard to know if the student was just careless or had a financial/technological problem.
Once, Lisa’s cell phone would not turn on. Both she and her nephew went desperate thinking it had broken. Thankfully, it was just a minor glitch. Her data and her nephew’s works were preserved. Though every morning he has study activities over WhatsApp, just as if he were going to school, Lisa feels that it would be better if there were live classes over video conferencing platforms. But, with all the difficulties in having a good internet connection, it would be hard for students to attend online classes too.
Hugo is a capoeira master and university lecturer. Given the crowd-control restrictions, he is giving capoeira lessons over videoconference for paying students. But the low-income pupils he used to teach for free in a community project are not attending classes due to their limited space for practice at home and, especially, poor internet access.
His eight-year-old son, Rafael, goes to a private school. Though Hugo says the distance education experience is not “perfect”, his son is not having that much technical trouble: “He’s adapted to it. Doesn’t mean he’s liking it. (…) He misses [school and] wants to be with other kids.”. They live in Freguesia, a neighbourhood in the West Zone of Rio. During the pandemic, Hugo has been working from home while his kid is plugged to the computer having online classes. Paying attention to teachers’ lessons on screen took Rafael some getting used to, but he enjoys the chance to interact with teachers and, especially, his classmates: “He learned how to use the chat [function] to talk silly stuff with the other students during the class”. Sometimes, the boy likes to play around with the sounds and images. For instance, Hugo caught him rewinding a recorded class over and over again back to something his teacher said because the sound effect was funny.
Nevertheless, Hugo seemed more overburdened by his work and house chores then by his son’s distance learning. He helps Rafael out with homework and in certain activities, like baking, using email or saving picture files, but tries to stimulate the child to attend classes and do his school projects as independently as possible. When I asked Hugo about leisurely moments he has had since March, one of the main things he highlighted was playing with his kid. He also thinks the time they are spending together helps Rafael cope better with the “social isolation” experience, making up for the lack of playtime with his classmates.
Since 8 June, commercial establishments and shopping malls have started to reopen in Rio de Janeiro, Nova Iguaçu and Duque de Caxias even if with certain restrictions. Public and private schools do not have a planned date to reopen yet. Private institutions are under the added pressure of surviving the pandemic, given many families are asking for a discount on tuition fees, delaying payments or taking their kids off school. Elis, for instance, agreed to pay 50% of her son’s preschool tuition fee. Her husband lost income due to the pandemic, and the school could not offer much in terms of distance learning for a 2½-year-old child.
Challenges in higher education
Regarding his work as a lecturer of a private university, Hugo had to completely rethink the contents, structure, order and presentation format of his disciplines. His course plans had to be rearranged given that some practical activities are inviable at the moment. In normal circumstances, he would spend most of his days on his feet, between university and capoeira classes. He is finding it awkward to spend so much time sitting in front of screens. Besides the burden of rethinking his disciplines, dealing with an unstable internet connection and the intricacies of gadgets is quite stressful:
“Once I had to go from one computer to a laptop because there was a problem, then to my iPad, but there was a problem, then to a personal computer, which had no camera, and ended up on my cell phone.”
Neither instructors nor students at higher education institutions really had time to prepare for the sudden shift to distance learning. Through April and May, Hugo’s students were complaining about work overload. For instance, in the classroom model, they just had to show up and take a test to get the grade. In the distance model, they are doing a kind of directed study that will result in a final document for them to turn in. Even though the second model allows students to consult books, articles and Hugo, it also requires more dedication on their part.
Pedro, who also teaches at a private university, observed that instructors as much as students had trouble adjusting to distance learning in such short notice. At his institution, instructors began by just uploading files to their Google Classrooms with their disciplines’ weekly content and exercises to guide students’ home learning. Students downloaded the materials and could post their questions in the Google Classroom. Pedro, however, felt they were having a lot of trouble reading and interpreting texts on their own. “They’re so used to this closer face-to-face relationship”. Hence, a few weeks into the social isolation routine, his colleagues and him started lecturing on video as well, so students could enjoy these sessions to ask questions.
Still, Pedro did not seem satisfied in trying to transfer the lecture format to video sessions. Classes have thirty or more students each. So, to prevent interferences – not just people talking at the same time, but, especially, noises from their homes, like babies crying, dogs barking, doors banging, etc. –, instructors mute everyone until they have finished lecturing. Students are supposed to use the chat function to interact during the class, but, according to Pedro, they are not very “pro-active”. He thinks students at his university are too used to the traditional lecture model in which they basically listen while teachers do the talking. In the classroom, he found opportunities during his lectures to promote debate and incite students’ participation. But, he is finding that harder to do in the online model.
Hugo also had a lot of trouble in adjusting to classes on video. Firstly, he does not feel comfortable in front of cameras. Secondly, he prefers the face-to-face contact in the classroom, where he can clearly see if students are understanding him, through their body language and expressions, and adjust his tone, rhythm and content accordingly. He feels that giving online classes is like following a “cake recipe”. There is little room for the spontaneous gestures of face-to-face interaction.
Carol studies Advertising and Marketing Communications at a small private college that attracts mostly middle and higher-income people. Her institution is offering all disciplines through Zoom. To guarantee all students could transfer to online learning, the institution lent laptops to those who did not have any equipment at home. Instructors are giving classes on their habitual time, but students can watch the video if they miss the live session. Carol is trying to attend classes according to her normal schedule but says that disciplines that are boring or hard to follow tend to have a smaller audience during the live sessions. She confesses that sometimes it is tough to concentrate staring at the screen – she often feels sleepy. Most students keep their mics and cameras off. Therefore, instructors give class without knowing if students are really there listening or not.
Carol’s favourite instructor is performing well even in the online environment. The variations in tone and cadence make her speech more engaging, but she also has mastered certain Zoom functionalities that help energize classes. For example, the instructor sometimes splits students into different “rooms” for timed group activities.
Lecturers that designed classroom disciplines were overwhelmed by all the changes in their planning and all the technology required to convey their content in a different format over the internet. Pedro offers a practical discipline in Physical Therapy that would normally require little preparatory material because he would demonstrate procedures in the classroom. But to teach that same course online, he had to record and edit videos of him performing the techniques and explaining them. In that process, he is also learning a lot about apps and software functions he had never used before, like the recording function in PowerPoint. His colleagues and him have been helping each other out in that regard. For instance, some of them had very little experience with Google Classroom before the pandemic and had to learn more about its functionalities.
Flavio teaches in a postgraduate program in Physical Education at a private institution, but all his classes were suspended during social isolation because they are meant to be hands-on. He is also a senior-year undergraduate student in Physical Therapy and had to postpone the start of his residency (speciality training) due to the pandemic. Based on his colleagues’ accounts and his own experience as a student, he thinks the sudden move to online learning was “terrible”. Institutions did not have the structure to accommodate classroom disciplines in the online environment:
“The worst problem is that they don’t have an efficient platform, no one has. No one has software capable of solving all the problems that emerged all of a sudden.”
Even institutions that already had distance education and hybrid programs in place found trouble adapting. Flavio’s institution became so chaotic due to the pandemic that it delayed a discipline that was already offered in the online platform. The institution was so focused on handling the problems of classroom disciplines that it neglected the virtual ones. The worst part of it all is that students were paying the fee to take the online discipline since January. Still, Flavio understands there was not much that institutions, lecturers or students could have done better given the extraordinary circumstances:
“Nothing would’ve prepared us for this. (…) Nothing would’ve made people more efficient in the middle of a pandemic.”
Mila decided to take some time off from her undergraduate studies in Management because she was finding it too hard to follow some of the disciplines over the internet. Her institution did not use the structure of its distance education programs, which have their own platform and cheaper tuition fees, to accommodate the regular programs during the pandemic. Thus, Mila complained the quality of her classes had worsened but the fees remained the same. After a few weeks away, one of her instructors convinced her to re-enrol at least in two disciplines so she would not lose an entire semester.
The increase of dropouts in private institutions is one of the many consequences of the pandemic and a huge concern for lecturers. Hugo was explicit about his concerns:
“The pressure on us is like this: soon the university will stop getting tuition fees. Ok? They’re gonna start firing people. You can be sure of that, it’s a private university.”
Concerns about dropouts and, therefore, revenue loss for the institution place even more burden on the shoulders of lecturers. Not only did they have to learn new teaching skills and technologies in record time, but they are also being pressured both by students’ complaints and by management. Pedro’s institution did not fire anyone yet, but reduced salaries as per an exceptional measure passed by the federal government meant to prevent massive unemployment. Therefore, he is working “three times more” than usual to give his classes but is getting paid less.
At Pedro’s university, about 25% of students have already dropped out during social isolation. Although it is a private institution, some of its students do not have proper access to the internet. At first, I thought it was contradictory that paying students would not have an internet connection. But, Pedro explained his university attracts lower-income students precisely because of its affordable tuition fees and its campuses in less privileged neighbourhoods.
The situation at Hugo’s university is similar. His feelings of job insecurity have prompted him into making plans about creating his own online learning platform. He thinks the pandemic is accelerating the process of converting all courses into distance education programs that will require less lecturers and, therefore, will lower costs for the institution. In his words:
“At my university, the chance of everyone getting fired is really high. (…) The logic is that students are leaving, because they have no job, so they have no money to pay [tuition fees]. Without money, what will the university do? It will try to reduce costs. How do you reduce costs? Converting everything you can into online [learning]. The university already had that project [before the pandemic]. They’ve been trying to make everything hybrid since late last year. We were digging our own grave, because we were helping to make the structure to transform the classroom course into a blended course (…) which reduces the number of instructors [per discipline].”
Staff and students of public universities are having a different experience. At least in Rio de Janeiro, state and federal institutions decided to suspend classes entirely, except for distance education programs that were in place before the pandemic. No classroom discipline was converted into online learning. Public universities do not suffer the pressure of losing students because of economic downturns given they do not charge tuition fees. Also, they handle much bigger and more diversified student bodies than any private institution, meaning it is harder to make sudden changes. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), for instance, has 67,000 students in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, who come from different socioeconomic conditions. On 16 June, the interruption of classroom disciplines and other on-campus activities completed 90 days. The university dean has reiterated that these activities will not fully resume in 2020 unless an effective medicine or vaccine against COVID-19 emerges. Since April, UFRJ has been investigating the degree of internet access of its students and staff through surveys and studying alternative ways of offering classes.
It is difficult for public universities to lend laptops to students as did Carol’s institution. Public universities already worked on a tight budget before the pandemic and would likely need a large number of laptops to cover all their students.
Marcus and Carlos teach in undergraduate programs at federal universities in Rio, while Renata is a senior-year student. The three of them agree that transferring classes to online platforms in a hasty way would be too complicated for their institutions because students’ level of income and access to internet and computers vary greatly in all courses. While many of them do have a fairly comfortable condition to study at home, many others do not. As Marcus said:
“The student body is very heterogeneous from a socio-economic point of view. There are students who don’t have an internet connection at home. There are students who live in communities [favelas]. There are students who share internet with 10 other people at home. There are students who don’t have a laptop. I have students, I mean, most of them have a smartphone, but not necessarily internet connection.”
Renata is employed in a consulting firm that provided laptops for its employees to work from home during the pandemic. She was supposed to be taking her last year in Electric Engineering but has already accepted the fact that she will likely not graduate by the end of 2020.
Without classes, Carlos has been focusing on his work as an undergraduate and postgraduate adviser and on his department’s administrative activities. Though he talks to his colleagues and students frequently over videoconferencing apps, he misses gatherings and conversations on campus. Even though all his colleagues are in the same situation as him and not by choice, Marcus feels uncomfortable because he is getting his full salary but is working less. On the other hand, he worries about the possibility of Congress approving pay cuts to federal employees, which would complicate his family’s finances. He is working on the supervision of senior monographs and making educational content to share on social media.
Both Marcus and Carlos fear that this prolonged period without classes can be an opportunity for opponents of public-gratuitous universities in the government to make their case. Marcus grants that federal universities should have been a bit more prepared for distance learning, but the implementation of tools for online programs has been a sensitive issue for a while. Some left-wing groups contend that any opening toward distance education can weaken public universities, lead to staff reduction or even to privatisation.
Therefore, systemic social inequalities transposed to higher education affect members of both public and private institutions in Rio though in different ways. In public institutions, low-income students are not being neglected and staff are not being overburdened by the sudden shift to online platforms. Nevertheless, they are in a prolonged state of uncertainty for not knowing when and how their activities will resume, besides feeling apprehensive about the strengthening of attacks on public education. In private institutions, students and staff were forced to adjust to distance learning unexpectedly. In that process, some students, especially lower-income ones, are being overlooked, while staff are under a great deal of pressure and fear that increase in dropouts or the full conversion to distance learning will lead to their unemployment. Overall, education is suffering during the pandemic in Rio.
* I have changed the names of all informants to protect their privacy.
 “Dados do censo da educação superior: as universidades brasileiras representam 8% da rede, mas concentram 53% das matrículas”, Portal do Inep, 3 October, 2018, portal.inep.gov.br/.
 For instance, of the 46 Brazilian institutions listed in the 2020 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, only five are not federal or state universities.
 “Taxa de ingresso ao nível superior é maior entre alunos da rede privada”, Agência IBGE Notícia, 5 December, 2018, https://agenciadenoticias.ibge.gov.br.
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 “Weintraub volta a ignorar decisão judicial e reitera que ‘vai ter Enem’”, UOL Educação, 19 April, 2020, https://educacao.uol.com.br/
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 “Secretaria Municipal de Educação de Nova Iguaçu lança cadastro on-line para alunos terem acesso a aulas e atividades complementares durante Covid-19”, Porta da Prefeitura de Nova Iguaçu, 14 April, 2020, https://www.novaiguacu.rj.gov.br.
 “Os verdadeiros números da UFRJ”, UFRJ, 3 December, 2019, https://ufrj.br/noticia/2019/12/03/os-verdadeiros-numeros-da-ufrj.
 “Nota oficial”, UFRJ, 15 June, 2020, https://ufrj.br/noticia/2020/06/15/nota-oficial.