• Abbie Tibbott

Inequalities in Study Environments: Distance Learning and the Student Divide

The past year has really exposed the inequalities between students regarding the environment in which they study. We’ve all seen the aesthetic desk set-ups on Instagram, and I’ve pinned enough images on my Pinterest to sink a small ship. The reality for me and many others is that a desk is not even a guarantee, never mind all the bells and whistles that we see online every day. Mini vacuums and light-up keyboards may be trendy, but there have been plenty of times I have written an essay on my bed, hunched over a coffee table or worse still, sat on the floor. The move to distance learning in 2020 meant that many students had to somehow wrangle together a suitable study environment with limited space and funds, and the outcomes have been variable.


Personally, my productivity and motivation only started to pick up when I finally had a (makeshift) dedicated study area to call my own, and I wouldn’t have been able to finish my MA dissertation if my parents hadn’t bought me a small desk from Argos. In September, I squashed this desk into our spare bedroom, hemmed in on all sides by a bedframe, mattress, and chest of drawers. I wasn’t near the only socket in the room, so extension cords were a constant trip hazard, as well as the room becoming freezing during winter due to the massive window. With a decent monetary investment, that room could have become a Pinterest dream, but I had lost my income due to Covid, so I simply recycled what I already had. Simply having the privilege of a spare room, as well as a secure housing arrangement already makes me privileged, so I think that it’s important to open up a conversation about how distance learning still divides a student’s experience depending on their financial situation.


[ My desk, posed for Instagram. You can't see the furniture surrounding me though. ]



I’ve written essays from hotel rooms and crammed onto Cross-country trains at rush hour, but nothing beats a desk and chair that doesn’t break your back. Part of the reason I returned to my university accommodation last summer was because it had a desk! Whatever the risk with Covid, I knew that if I was going to complete my research on time, a desk was necessary, so I returned to a dirty kitchen and frosted up freezers armed with masks and lots of hand sanitiser. It all worked out okay in the end; the dissertation got completed on time and I got a good result, but that doesn’t mean that my experience was desirable. Universities framed distance learning as a way of ensuring that all students, regardless of time zone, had access to the same teaching they would have otherwise experienced in person, albeit in an online format. However, this did nothing to take into account the difficulties students have faced regarding their study environment. It’s obvious that having a dedicated space to work allows for better focus and control over your studies, so for students who did not have such a space, it is inevitable that many will have struggled with their motivation, leading to the procrastination of important work and a decline in their grades or skills. If you’re a student who has gone through this, all credit to you!

 

I thought I’d include a few tips on creating a decent enough study space if you don’t have anything permanent. All these tips either reuse something in your space that you probably own, or can be obtained at a low cost:


1. Lighting


Good lighting is key for productivity, especially if you’re using a screen, as a lack of lighting can strain your eyes and lead to headaches. It might be worth rearranging your room to take advantage of any windows, but if that’s not on the cards, I’d recommend investing in a desk lamp. These can be picked up from Amazon or supermarkets at a low cost, but feel free to borrow a bedside lamp, they’re just as good. Set up your lamp behind your screen, as this will reduce glare, or even stand it on top of a folder or some books to give your space a floodlit look. Plugging in a lamp when you’re working in a low-light environment will help keep you awake too, which can be useful if you have to work at night and want to minimise disturbances for other people.


2. Surfaces


Desks might not be available to you, but there is still a benefit to having a flat surface to work on. If you’re writing notes by hand, leaning on something solid will help with neatness as well as speed, so I’d advise getting a lap tray if you have to work from your bed. You might already have one (think of trays that people use to eat food from in front of the TV) but if not, I’d advise picking one up. They help with laptop overheating and prevent the wobble that comes with balancing your device on your lap. If you’re working from the floor, elevate your device by stacking some books, this will really help your posture. Working from a chair is my preferred method as my back is now very unforgiving, due to years of working from the floor at home, but if that isn’t possible, placing your device closet to your eye height as possible will reduce strain.


3. Noise


I’d say this is the hardest to control, especially if you’re studying from home or in a communal part of your accommodation. Everyone has preferences as to what level of noise is helpful for studying, but generally you should set up in an environment where you will be able to hear your online lecture. Be open with friends and family that you need quiet at certain times of the day, but equally I understand that this isn’t always feasible. Noise cancelling headphones start from around £30, and there are a lot of refurbished models on eBay and Facebook Marketplace. In my second year of undergrad, I invested in some wireless Beats Solo headphones that were factory returns. I’ll admit they were a splurge (and not in everyone’s budget) but they are comfortable for long periods and really help to transform a busy environment into somewhere I can actually be productive. With your headphones you can listen to your lectures and play your favourite playlists while you’re studying. I love lo-fi music, but equally enjoy ASMR rooms and film scores. Even cheaper wireless headphones will give you some freedom to focus on your work, and you’ll soon rely on them!

 

A few things on my current wish list for my ‘office’ include a proper riser for my laptop (I only have a travel version at present), a monitor to serve as a second screen and a full-size wireless keyboard. I bought a smaller wireless keyboard for my tablet, and although it will be great for travelling (remember that?) I don’t think it’s great for long periods of studying or working due to its small size. Equally, I’d love to upgrade my laptop in the future, but these are all wants, not needs, so I’m happy to wait. Just remember that although it may seem like everyone has a perfect working environment, it often may not be the case. You can’t hear noise through an Instagram photo, and can’t see what lies beyond the parameters of the image. Equally, there’s this thing called ‘survivor bias’, where only the successful show their success, implying to others that this is the norm, when in reality they are in the minority.


To conclude, I thought I’d offer a bit of an update in that I have started my own #studygram account on Instagram @tibbotttalks_study to tie in with my blog posts. I’ve been wanting a dedicated space to promote my blog content and share my not-so-aesthetic work environments to normalise more of a ‘nomadic’ office style. I have followed the study community on the platform since last March, and I’ve finally got up the courage, so feel free to follow along over there for daily posts and insights into my life as a graduate.


Whatever your working environment, know that I’m rooting for you! Take care of your posture where you can, protect your eyesight where possible and minimise distractions.


Happy studying!