This summer, the Graduate Attachés with the BIEA found ourselves sharing a Zoom office space rather than in the BIEA’s facilities. We gazed at each other through the lens of a computer camera, situated in four different countries and two different time zones. There were some of the blips we have come to expect in this digital age: bad internet connections, interruptions, awkward silences and of course, people not realising that they are, in fact, still muted. Yet despite these challenges, we have managed to cobble together connections and the beginnings of friendships, all built without ever physically being together.
However, the move to the digital space in academia predates the pandemic and it will continue long after. Although, the pandemic has thrust a spotlight on technology as academic institutions find new ways to use adapt learning programs and improve on the already existing online services. We are quickly approaching the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and while the term ‘new normal’ has been tossed around frequently, many of us find ourselves disheartened by the new modes of existing that we still find ourselves relying on. We graduate attachés are not above complaining – in a non-pandemic world, we would love to be in Nairobi enjoying working and being together at the BIEA. But we find ourselves in a world where the email chains grow ever longer, and the online meetings grow ever more impersonal and tedious – who would have ever thought the words ‘video call’ could simultaneously trigger such a sense of dread and exhaustion? Nevertheless, these experiences have allowed us to reflect on the digital space and what it provides because despite our wishes to be in Kenya, the digital space is touted as a strong point of access to academia, an assertion that will be interrogated in this blog post.
In academia, we often discuss who is in the room. A discussion and the conclusions reached in that discussion are largely dependent on the individuals inhabiting the space. The breadth of possibility for who can occupy these rooms is expanded in the digital space. The BIEA’s weekly reading group is a prime example of this. We meet each week with a group that is, at the minimum, physically situated in at least four different countries. From Kenya, Cameroon, France and the United Kingdom, we are able to come together for an hour and a half in a Zoom meeting room and share our thoughts (somewhat ironically given our inability to travel) on the book Travelling While Black by Nanjala Nyabola. But also, with different geographic locations comes different experiences, memories, and cultures. Now imagine all those individuals building an opinion on the same book and having the opportunity/ access to share it with one another. It sounds chaotic but it’s really like learning and travelling without leaving your couch. Honestly, that’s probably why they get exhausting, it’s the new version of Jetlag.
Similarly, online conferences allow all qualified and keen academics to participate, whereas in-person attendance could limit participants on account of financial or visa issues. Hence in-person conferences oftentimes amplify the voices of academics with strong passports and diminish those with weak passports. One does not need a visa to travel to a digital conference, and thus the conference proves to be more accessible and most likely richer in content and personnel. Similarly, the audience for academic talks and conferences can be increased and diversified as well. Academia is notoriously inaccessible, in both the literal and figurative sense. By hosting these talks and conferences online, more individuals can attend, thus making academia and the issues being discussed more accessible.
This is not to say that the digital space eliminates all obstacles to academic learning and teaching. The same way in which online platforms grant access by eliminating visa requirements, they also come with restrictions of their own. For starters, access to online platforms is limited to individuals who already have access to technology such as computers, smartphones, internet and electricity. Even for some who do have access to technology, digital platforms are not available to users in their native languages creating the impression that these platforms are only meant for the literate. Respondents of a study conducted in rural Zambia for example reported that they felt too intimidated to open Facebook accounts because they thought it was only meant for individuals who could speak English. This creates a gap between the number of people who would like to use online platforms and who actually have access to these platforms.
Then, there is the issue of separating professional and domestic spheres that comes with working remotely. This lack of separation can be extremely difficult for those who have obligations at home, in particular women who oftentimes have the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. Even if one is capable of logging in, it is not truly academic access if the individual has children who need help with homework, dinner that must be cooked or family members that need assistance. It is one thing to be able to log in; it is another to be present in that digital space. Access must be thought of as the latter.
In addition, meeting online rather than in-person can lead to a loss of enrichment or networking opportunities that traditionally can create points of entry and future opportunities. Hence, the online mode can limit access in the broader sense. Oftentimes, the onus is placed on individuals to be more active in their networking rather than it occurring organically. Organisers of these online events must be cognizant of this and specific measures must be taken to facilitate engagement between attendees.
The pandemic emphasised the importance of having a robust online space for academia. The growth of the digital academic space has been expedited, and although we hope that things will eventually allow us to all be physically together again, online learning is here to stay. It has allowed institutions, instructors and students to remain resilient and continue with their learning missions despite the closing of classrooms. Nevertheless, online learning does come with its own limitations. As we have explored in this blog not everyone that needs or wants to always has full access to the online room – at least not yet. However, as we continue to learn and adapt in the digital space, it is crucial to keep the concept of access at the centre of the structure of programmes and initiatives. Academia only becomes richer when we increase the breadth of people who can access and participate in it.
BIEA Graduate Attachés (in the July–September 2021 cohort):