Connectivity Allows Continuous Learning for All Students
The two institutions have partnered with T-Mobile to provide hotspots and connected devices to thousands of students, including 2,100 students at Motlow State who received 5G-enabled Samsung Galaxy A32 smartphones.
And while the two institutions serve what somewhat disparate student populations, they both found plenty of students in need of connectivity.
WGU, an online-based nonprofit university, has a huge student body of nearly 140,000 students. The average age for students is 37, and Nelson said 70 percent come from traditionally underserved communities.
“When the pandemic hit, we realized that connectivity might be an issue,” said Nelson. “Some of our students were previously probably logging on at work or at libraries, things of that nature. Now, they were depending upon connectivity at home, which they didn’t necessarily have.”
To help meet the need, WGU announced its Online Access Scholarship, which has distributed more than 3,000 hotspot-enabled laptops to existing and new students since late 2020.
Motlow State, meanwhile, is a two-year college with a handful of campuses in southern Tennessee. It serves rural students in that state and across the border in Alabama, along with what Torrence called “tall-building students” in nearby big cities like Nashville. Motlow State’s program was designed to “put a connectivity opportunity in every student’s hands,” with more than 2,000 smartphones distributed to about 30 percent of the total student population.
Two years after the program began at Motlow State, Torrence said, the college has seen six-point increases in retention and persistence for Black male students in the program and an overall higher rate of persistence for all students in the program.
Device Program Benefits Extend Beyond Learning
Both Torrence and Nelson said that the device programs their institutions implemented went beyond improving students’ academic success.
At Motlow State, leaders made sure devices came equipped with more than learning management software and collaboration tools. Devices included services supporting students struggling to manage healthcare, homelessness, food insecurity and other challenges. The meditation app Calm was included to support mental health.
“We needed to meet the students where they were, not simply think that they were coming to us and utilizing our online platforms for teaching innovation, learning and training,” said Torrence. “They needed to know that someone cared about them, and our care was in the form of connectivity and connected devices.”
For Nelson and WGU, due in part to the large number of adult learners in the student body, the benefits of connectivity had a ripple effect on entire families.
“Take a family example: Mom and dad used to go out to work, kids got on the bus and went to school, and now everybody’s hanging around one dining room table vying for one computer to do two jobs and how many classroom assignments. As a parent, you’re now the teacher as well, being an employee and a student yourself in that scenario,” he said. “It was great watching how our connectivity and having our students have their own devices now alleviated that burden.”
Torrence said those kinds of ripple effects may not have been foreseen as the pandemic took hold, but they are now central to Motlow State’s mission.
“You have to make sure that you’re taking care of the whole human, and not just taking care of one particular area of their needs,” he said.
Device Programs Set Up Future Technological Growth
After seeing early success, Motlow State and WGU each plan to continue some form of their device programs in the coming years.
Nelson says WGU has successfully delivered the devices to existing students who qualify and is now turning its attention to incoming students and a more diverse pool of potential users. Some of these students, Nelson said, “won’t even think of applying to college because they don’t have connectivity.”
Torrence noted that Motlow State’s device program has helped lay the groundwork for whatever the next iteration of connectivity is.
“We’re evolving into a new metaspace where 5G is the baseline for the iteration for 6G and 7G and so on,” Torrence said. “So, this allows personal sovereignty with Web3; this allows our students to advance themselves.”
He also said such programs give students the tools they need for a future where things like the metaverse will grow more significant in their education or work.
“The conversation around why to do it, I just keep responding with, ‘How can we not?’” he says. “That was my biggest challenge: making sure that people were guided to the idea that this is so important. It’s immaterial where you are — we must do it.”