Mar 12 2021

5 Ways to Support Lower-Income Remote Learners

Underserved students face the highest risk of being stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. Here are some strategies to help bridge the gap.

The futures of lower-income college students are at stake as the pandemic further expands the digital divide. A fall 2020 report from UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge found that lower-income households across the country did not have access to the technologies children need for remote learning, with more than 2 in 5 households lacking access to computers or the internet.

This pandemic-induced achievement gap will likely have major social and economic consequences in the long run. “The digital inequality threatens to widen the racial and income gap as children become adults, thus contributing to an intergenerational reproduction of inequality,” the center’s director, Paul Ong, writes in the report. “To avoid this tragedy, we must act immediately and decisively to close the digital divide.”

As higher education institutions receive another round of federal funding that could potentially be allocated to technology investments, IT departments have a crucial role to play in ensuring digital equity. “If digital inequity is addressed holistically, it paves a path for technology teams to do what they do best: procure, configure, secure, and deploy the equipment and solutions needed,” says Tina Pappas, associate director for innovation and technology at Rutgers University.

Here’s a look at what that holistic approach could look like.

1. Prioritize Internet Access for Students, on Campus and Off

A New America survey found that 57 percent of college students said it was a challenge to access reliable, high-speed internet in 2020.

While there are many discounted or free internet packages available for lower-income college students, keep in mind that discounted plans are not always the best option, as they may not offer an internet speed sufficient for streaming lectures or uploading large assignment files.

To serve students who live close by, a growing number of universities and colleges are making parking lots into Wi-Fi hotspots. Washington State University, for example, converted its parking lots into 600 high-speed Wi-Fi hubs.

For students who live farther away, especially in rural areas where network infrastructure is limited, universities can help bridge the gap by providing their own internet service packages. Southern State Community College in Ohio, for example, has a one-to-one program that allows students to borrow Kajeet wireless hotspot devices and laptops for remote learning. The application process to join is quick and simple, which is important when it comes to ensuring those who lack access to internet can complete the application.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's 6 ways to close the broadband gap between rural and urban students.

2. Be Intentional When Selecting Devices and Software

Without access to campus computer labs, many underserved students are painstakingly typing essays from mobile devices and livestreaming lectures to tiny screens. To address the dire need for laptops, nonprofit universities can potentially partner with organizations like PCs for People, which helps universities purchase low-cost devices in bulk.

Keep in mind that technology solutions should be flexible. “We don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world,” Pappas says. “Some students might benefit from a laptop preloaded with course software to work from home. Others might need an environment conducive to getting work done, like a library or computer lab.”

MORE ON EDTECH: These are the questions to ask before you start a one-to-one program.

Higher education IT teams can play a strategic role by taking the time to understand what lower-income students need before creating solutions to help them. Pappas describes this as “intentionally issued equipment.”

“The most critical factors to consider need to come from listening to your students. No strategy will succeed without direct input from the people you’re trying to assist,” she says. “Issuing iPads over laptops, or vice versa, can either be tremendously impactful or a poor investment. What we’re delivering should align with what will be most useful for the student.”

Many classes also require specific equipment and software. To ensure that devices in one-to-one programs meet the minimum specs required for all courses and majors, universities may want to consult an education strategist from a business analyst service. “That depth of visibility enables us to make decisions in ways that would be impossible for any single institution to replicate,” Pete Koczera, a former senior manager of education strategy and transformation at CDW•G, writes in a blog. “That’s proved to be valuable as colleges have sought to roll out new devices to support remote work and learning.”

3. Offer Accessible Technical and Personal Support

Without the familiar in-classroom structure and in-person support from instructors and advisers, underserved students can feel especially isolated and unmotivated. This leads to less engagement, lower grades and a higher risk of dropping out. A May 2020 survey by The Education Trust reported that only 43 percent of lower-income students could attend virtual office hours during the times the services were offered. For these students, after-hours tech support may mean the difference between passing and failing.

To ensure successful adoption of remote learning technologies, IT teams should remember that lower-income students have varying levels of tech literacy. “What does usability look like for the communities we are serving? We have to think about digital and physical accessibility,” Pappas says. “The goal here is to do more than provide technology. We need to think through how we can help them use the technology most effectively.”

She suggests offering training sessions on how to effectively use digital tools, as well as ongoing support with extended hours to field questions and technical issues. For short-staffed IT teams, a managed service provider can help fill after-hours support gaps.

Chatbots can also step in to provide additional help.

MORE ON EDTECH: Universities use AI chatbots to improve student services.

4. Connect with Students Effectively by Streamlining Communications

When offering support, universities must first know let those in need of assistance know that support exists. Pappas recommends that schools integrate various channels of communication into a single reliable stream, like an app or a student portal. Rutgers, for example, implemented Salesforce to streamline support management. This allows students to use social media, chatbots and text messaging to request help with accounting, advising, transcripts, financial aid and more. All requests are funneled into a single queue and attended to by staff on standby.

“Having a single, consistent hub for information is ideal. It allows you to create multiple ways to engage and drive students to a single source of information,” Pappas says. “It’s no small effort to develop this kind of communications system, but it’s an important and impactful strategy.”

Tina Pappas
What does usability look like for the communities we are serving? We have to think about digital and physical accessibility."

Tina Pappas associate director for innovation and technology, Rutgers University

5. Make It Easier for Underserved Prospective Students to Apply

When designing and deploying outreach solutions and support methods, keep lower-income applicants in mind. A National Student Clearinghouse report found that two-year public institutions — which largely serve lower-income students — saw a 21 percent decline in first-year enrollment during fall 2020. Pell Grant applications from students whose families have incomes of $25,000 or less also declined by more than 7 percent.

“There are a number of changes that need to be made to improve the process to even apply to college,” Pappas says. “There are confusing digital application forms, complicated payment systems, onerous financial aid processes. These are process problems — facilitated by sometimes antiquated technology –– and are more negatively impactful for underprivileged populations.

“Digital inequity has been a critical problem since the dawn of the digital age. It’s an extension of systemic inequity,” Pappas says. “The pandemic just gave the issue the visibility it’s deserved for a long time.”

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