Jul 29 2020

Promoting Online Access with Hotspots, Laptops and Planning

With many postsecondary schools embracing blended-learning strategies, how can they address socioeconomic disparities faced by disadvantaged students?

Blended-learning strategies — the mix of in-person and online instruction — are now top of mind for postsecondary schools going into the fall 2020 semester.

Faced with uncharted educational waters, however, there’s no standard operating model: Harvard has plans to bring back 40 percent of Arts and Sciences undergraduates “who must be on campus to progress academically.” Stanford, on the other hand, has opted for a less concrete approach. While in-person classes will be offered, online instruction will be “the default teaching option for 2020-21,” according to an online statement from Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

In all, many postsecondary schools have seen considerable success in the transition to remote learning — especially considering that many had no plans in place for doing so. But deploying IT solutions that support blended learning is only half the battle. Now more than ever, postsecondary institutions find themselves confronting economic disparities faced by students that could prevent equal access to key resources and opportunities and, ultimately, hinder their success. Indeed, an EDUCAUSE Quick Poll conducted in April found that 63 percent of students surveyed acknowledged moderate to severe difficulty in accessing bandwidth or Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, 55 percent reported difficulties accessing necessary equipment.

The result? Higher education faces a critical and urgent mandate to help disadvantaged students succeed in a learning environment that now demands near-constant technology access.

Evaluating the Socioeconomic Effect for Disadvantaged Students

Socioeconomic issues play a significant role in potential student success, says Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “A major issue is that students from low-income backgrounds tend to attend underfunded institutions,” she explains. “Community colleges don’t have the resources to provide the academic experiences and the support systems that are available in better-funded institutions.”

This creates a critical divide: Both disadvantaged students and the schools they’re most likely to attend lack the economic resources required to succeed at blended learning. It’s a problem that long predates the COVID-19 pandemic. For years, researchers have pointed to evidence of glaring disparities and academic challenges faced by disadvantaged students.

“We find big gaps in the quality and reliability of the technology students own,” said Jessica Calarco, assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, in a 2018 study published in Science Daily. “Students of color and students from low-income families rely on older devices that are more likely to break down.”

Baum also points to the specific economic issue of living expenses. “Students who don’t have enough money to pay for food and housing struggle to study and learn,” she says. “It is really living expenses, not tuition, that create the biggest pressure. For many students, small unexpected expenses can cause major problems.”

Put simply, ongoing socioeconomic challenges often predispose disadvantaged students to academic struggles — a problem exacerbated by the evolving novel coronavirus pandemic. As noted in The New York Times, while early school closures in March may cause average students to fall up to seven months behind academically, low-income learners could be set back 10 months or more. And with many students unable to secure low-cost, on-campus housing, let alone Wi-Fi access and personal computers, schools must find ways to not only provide quality instruction, but also the tools students need to participate in the first place.

“Campuses have responded quickly and creatively” to disparities in technology access, EDUCAUSE CEO John O’Brien writes in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed; 81 percent have offered free or low-cost loans of devices, he notes. “Half are loaning Wi-Fi hotspots to students, and 40 percent are helping students purchase equipment, including mailing the equipment to them.

“Many campuses are expanding campus Wi-Fi nodes or moving Wi-Fi hotspots to parking lots for students who need to connect from there because they don’t have necessary connectivity from home,” O’Brien writes. “In short, even beyond the initial weeks of the crisis, ‘whatever it takes’ continues to be the mantra on campus, energized by creativity and realized thanks to hard work.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to increase college success for underserved students.

A Practical Approach to Balancing Educational Technology Access

The displacement of so many students from campus has aggravated these existing disparities and complicated the path to student success. While students on campus are a captive audience and have access to school resources, off-campus students, particularly disadvantaged students trying to balance work and school life simultaneously, often lack necessary technology resources provided by university libraries and computer labs. With this in mind, there are several practical steps colleges and universities can take to reduce inequality in education-related technology access, such as:

  • Improving network access: Many students lack reliable internet access in their family homes or apartments, making it difficult, if not impossible to fulfill online obligations for virtual classes and digital testing. Solutions such as offering free Wi-Fi hotspots to registered students in campus parking lots can help reduce potential COVID-19 exposure risk while also providing critical curricular access.
  • Adapting current curricula: It’s also critical for schools to think beyond the desktop and embrace blended learning plans that leverage responsive mobile design to deliver content anywhere, anytime. While many disadvantaged students lack desktops or laptops, smartphone adoption continues to rise. It follows, then, that mobile support helps level the playing field.
  • Enhancing IT security: With digital document submission and online exams quickly becoming commonplace, schools can’t afford to lose documents or compromise databases. Enhanced security controls such as cloud-based malware detection and granular access tools both limit the risk of data loss and help ensure that low-income students already short on time and resources don’t have to resubmit papers or retake exams.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to prepare for campus readiness while cutting costs.

Considering a Post-COVID World

The present pandemic won’t last forever, but its effects might. Even before COVID-19, universities around the nation had started planning and even embarking on their path to digital transformation. Now, prompted by necessity, many institutions have committed to prolonged (and potentially permanent) remote learning and blended-learning strategies — a commitment that requires a much firmer digital foothold than many currently possess.

“Institutions that were already well along on their [digital transformation] journey have found themselves better prepared to adapt to the pandemic,” O’Brien writes. “Post-crisis, [digital transformation] can no longer be considered an aspirational concept. It must be understood as an imperative. And that well-worn, precious notion of technology professionals on campuses doing work that is only noticed when there is an outage? That, too, needs to be a thing of the past.”