Feb 20 2021

How Higher Ed Is Improving Technology Access for Underserved Students

In a world of mobile learning, higher education is tasked with supporting the most vulnerable student populations.

At The Ohio State University, mobile device programs are playing a critical role for students striving to overcome the hurdles that COVID-19 has placed in their path to a degree.

“We have all this computing power in our pockets,” says Cory Tressler, OSU’s director of learning programs. “It is omnipresent, and we want to help students take full advantage of that.”

Here and at other universities across the nation, administrators are seeking ways to keep students connected despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic. Students may need to shuttle between online and in-person classes, or they may not have ready access to desktop computing. Typical campus study spaces may be closed or running at limited capacity to enforce social distancing.

Some administrators have leaned heavily into mobility, deploying devices and academic infrastructure to support student access via smartphones and tablets. Others have sought to expand wireless connectivity outdoors, creating makeshift campus workspaces.

Successful Implementation of Mobile Learning 

OSU has provided all undergraduate students with iPad devices and cases. “This is our third year of doing that,” Tressler says, “and we have over 36,000 students across all six of our campuses who now have these devices.”

To deliver classroom content, “we use Canvas as our learning management system, both the browser version and the mobile app,” Tressler explains. “Students have access to that, and all of our courses are utilizing that to deliver course materials via mobile devices. That can be a course that was traditionally online or a course that is hybrid, with video content, e-books, podcasts. Faculty are making all sorts of materials available for students to consume.”

At Michigan’s Montcalm Community College, administrators have similarly leaned into mobility. Students can use Microsoft Teams to join classes via mobile, and Canvas to access course content, assignments, ­discussions and quizzes.

“We leverage Teams a lot. We rolled it out before COVID for collaboration, with staff and faculty training on that as a way to deliver education. When COVID-19 hit, we were in a good position to leverage Teams and some of the other mobile applications to extend the classroom out to students,” says David Kohn, associate director of information technology services.

“We are a rural commuter campus, so many students are looking at more than an hour’s drive to get to class. When you pile that on top of travel restrictions with COVID, that could have potentially been problematic,” Kohn says.

MORE ON EDTECH: What are the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 for online learning?

Technologies for Improving Connectivity During COVID-19

Other schools see connectivity as the key to keeping students engaged despite pandemic-related complications.

Take, for example, Lewis University in Illinois. “We looked for opportunities to continue providing access to our campus resources while still respecting things like social distancing,” says CIO LeRoy Butler, whose team deployed Cisco Aironet 1560 access points to create Wi-Fi zones in parking lots and other outdoor spaces. “It gives them a way to safely access resources on campus without going into the buildings.”

MORE ON EDTECH: What technologies do colleges need for outdoor classrooms?

Likewise, OSU administrators have deployed more than 300 HPE Aruba AP-375 and AP-377 access points to create outdoor connectivity at multiple regional campuses.

“We don’t normally cover parking lots, but at the start of COVID-19, we didn’t know if people wanted to stay 6 feet apart or 100 feet apart. We wanted them to be able to be in their vehicles with their windows up and still attend to business,” says Mike Hiatt, OSU’s director of networking.

Cory Tressler
We have all this computing power in our pockets. It is omnipresent, and we want to help students take full advantage of that.”

Cory Tressler Director of Learning Programs, The Ohio State University

“There are students and staff who may not have really good access, if they’re trying to download a textbook for a class or if they are between classes and just need a place to connect,” Hiatt says. “If they are taking a mix of online and in-person classes, they just may not have enough time to get home between classes.”

Outdoor Wi-Fi has helped close that gap. At Lewis University, parking lot Wi-Fi supports school activities in a number of ways, Butler says.

“Our residential students are streaming videos and doing recreational things” in addition to attending classes, he says. “Among our graduate population, who are mostly working adults, this allows them to access campus resources even at times when buildings are closed.”

Best Practices for Managing Mobile Devices and Outdoor  Networks

In this environment, schools will need to devote some care and attention to managing a wide array of apps. Modernized tools can help ensure that students on mobile devices have a consistent experience, even with multiple educational apps in play.

At OSU, for example, administrators are using a device management system from Jamf to help maintain control over the mobile environment. “It allows us to get apps to students that they need in order to be persistent and successful in their courses,” says Jessica Phillips, OSU’s associate director of student experience.

Schools that are looking at outdoor Wi-Fi, meanwhile, can use existing infrastructure to make such deployments easy and cost-effective.

“For power, you can potentially leverage light poles in the parking lot to mount access points, but you will likely need to adapt the voltage. Some folks also are using solar to provide local power to those access points,” says Bruce Miller, vice president of enterprise marketing at Cambium Networks.

Jessica Phillips, Associate Director of Student Experience, The Ohio State University
We’ve seen during COVID that students may access courses only through their smartphones — that is their only computing device.”

Jessica Phillips Associate Director of Student Experience, The Ohio State University

Backhaul may also be available in a number of ways. “To get the internet to that location, you can pull fiber or cable, but you can also do it wirelessly, which is very quick and cost-effective,” Miller says. “If you are doing something temporary and quick, wireless will be the best way to do that.”

For those looking to go beyond a parking lot, for instance to broadcast Wi-Fi across wider outdoor spaces, a mesh strategy can string together multiple access points and cover a larger territory.

MORE ON EDTECH: See which social distancing techs are helping colleges reopen campuses.

“If you have wide areas without enough cable, you can double up your access points to create a mesh,” says Jayanthi Srinivasan, director of product management for Cisco Meraki. “You won’t have the same level of throughput and performance, but it’s definitely a way to connect large areas.”

All this makes it sound as though supporting mobility, whether through devices or expanded Wi-Fi, will ramp up an already weighty IT workload. That may well be the case, but those who have gone this route say it’s worth it.

“There are a lot of disparities in the kinds of access that students have. We’ve seen during COVID that students may access courses only through their smartphones — that is their only computing device,” Phillips says. “It’s not an ideal learning experience, but it means it is critical that our academic content can work on those mobile platforms.” 

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