The Need for Equitable Digital Access will not End with the Pandemic: Is Outdoor Wireless the Solution


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Brief Abstract

The necessity for seamless wifi  has only increased with COVID-19. With more students depending on remote learning, higher education must ensure equity is delivered along with matriculation. Join us to discuss the future of wifi access. Is outdoor wireless a permanent solution to a not so temporary problem?


Additional Authors

Assistant Vice-President, Gardner Institute, and Adjunct Professor, Jackson State University

Extended Abstract

As the U.S. economy evolves and changes, it increasingly favors highly skilled and educated workers, and at the same time, recent efforts to attenuate the racial polarization of American higher education have largely failed (Long and Bateman 2020). As a result, increasing college access for students of color has become both a collective refrain and policy target (Sublett, 2020). Notable policy efforts to increase college access among low-income and students of color include year-round Pell and College Promise grants, FAFSA simplification, and the elimination of remedial coursework, among others (Sublett, 2020). Of all the potential ways to increase college access, however, the expansion of online or distance education has arguably the broadest constituency (Sublett, 2020). Online learning also enjoys a pervasive sense of inexorability; as more and more quotidian aspects of life become interconnected with the Internet, the growth of online learning only seems natural, if not expected (Sublett, 2020). This inevitability and necessity has only increased with COVID-19 (Sublett, 2020). With more students depending on remote learning than ever before, higher education has an imperative to ensure equity is delivered along with learning outcomes (Sublett, 2019).  Even with the advent of COVID-19, decisions to expand online learning must be driven by research, data, and, above all else, student success and equity (Sublett, 2020). 

Also, our thinking and deliberations must move beyond the binary and toward learning environments that blend in-person and online learning (Sublett, 2020). This blend will increase flexibility for students, maximize institutional efficiency, leverage powerful computer-assisted learning technologies, and encourage diverse learning while allowing for regular, immediate interpersonal connection, which is conducive to equity-minded interventions (Harris and Wood 2020). While not all institutions will have the option to utilize blended learning, administrators and faculty can mitigate the shortcomings of online-only education with an awareness of the benefits of hybrid learning (Sublett,2020). We must also ensure that the online learning and student equity research and policy streams that have converged in response to COVID-19 remain connected after the pandemic has receded. To achieve this, we need more research (Sublett, 2020). If equity means giving more to those with the least, our approaches thus far to serving students through distance education have fallen short (Sublett, 2020).

The lack of access to stable, high-speed internet is having devastating consequences for college students since the start of COVID. These are significant and needed investments. College students are facing several hardships during the pandemic, including connectivity access problems. They are doing anything they can to overcome these obstacles and complete assignments while learning remotely, even resorting to using their phones. The difficulty of attending class and accessing and completing assignments like this impacting their academic performance.

In a recent survey done by Palmer, Whistle, and Third Way approximately 4 million students enrolled in higher education are struggling with internet access, while the vast majority are supposed to be completing their coursework online. And this is having a larger, more worrisome effect: people are not starting or continuing their education (Palmer & Whistle, 2021). A forthcoming New America survey asked why people dropped out of community colleges or changed their mind and didn't enroll in the fall semester, and nearly one-fifth said they did not have the technology or internet access needed to take classes online. For these students, the pandemic and their lack of access to high-speed internet may negatively affect the rest of their lives. The likelihood of a student re-enrolling in college after they have dropped out is low: only around 30 percent return to finish a degree. And without a degree, they face a life of lower wages and job insecurity (Palmer &Whistle, 2021).

In response, Congress provided a COVID relief deal. The historic $900 billion packages took a couple of steps to alleviate internet access issues broadly, but especially for students in higher education. For one, Congress created the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, which allocated $285 million in new funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to provide grants to purchase broadband and other technology needs. Communities of color have been hit hard by the pandemic, and surveys have shown that their struggle to access reliable, high-speed internet is no different. The legislation also requires colleges that receive the grants and use them to support students’ connectivity to prioritize Pell Grant recipients and other low-income students (Palmer & Whistle, 2021).

Congress also created the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides $3.2 billion to fund a monthly $50 subsidy to low-income households to offset the cost of broadband internet. For households on tribal land, the benefit is $75 per month, a big help for the many TCU students who face difficulties with internet access. A major win in this program is that someone receiving a Pell Grant makes a household automatically eligible (Palmer & Whistle, 2021).

By integrating cutting-edge technology into the way people live, work and learn on campus and simply by having a technology platform that facilitates innovation you raise your profile for prospective students and research programs. Due to health concerns the pandemic classrooms have been pushed outdoors. Institutions are catching up to an amazing trend of outdoor Wi-Fi. Outdoor Wi-Fi is simply when Wi-Fi access is provided outside of a building. Outdoor Wi-Fi is usually used as an extension of the internal wireless LAN network of an organization, to give users a continuous Wi-Fi service. We are no longer chained to lecture halls, libraries, and classrooms to access wireless internet. The world has changed around us allowing us to be innovative in how we deliver information to students who are enrolled in institutions of higher education. We can create the most informative lectures at any time from any place, even outside. For example, at Lewis University outdoor Wi-Fi has allowed graduate school students who are mostly working students to access campus resources even when buildings are closed. (Stone, 2021). Supporting mobility whether it’s through devices or expanding Wi-Fi helps vulnerable student populations who may have only had access to their courses through their smartphones due to COVID. (Stone, 2020). 

Rice University and the University of Kentucky have provided tents for students that are semi-permanent and provide not only audio and visual equipment but air conditioning as well. If a student is late for class and can’t make it to the library or student cafe to connect to the Wi-Fi, no worries. They can simply join a class from a tent. This allows social distancing policies to stay in effect and professors to arrange impromptu scheduled classes. (Ofgang, 2020). 

The University of Kentucky has created covered canopies for students The canopies create opportunities and spaces for students to socialize, dine, study, and participate in approved outdoor events.  Rick Phillips, the Executive Director of Networking and Infrastructure for the University of Kentucky states, “If I have a 300-person classroom, and I have to go to 25 percent occupancy, those other people have to go somewhere. When you cannot use the physical space, outside is the only place you can go.” This not only helped large-size classes but it also helped students with transitioning from a physical class or meeting to online classes (Stone, 2020).  With a time of the essence, this type of innovation and support allows students to transition throughout their day with less stress. Emily Bouck West the Deputy Executive Director of the Higher Learning Advocates states that “Students without internet or poor connection may be unable to complete assignments or join synchronous discussions, enhanced Wi-Fi accessibility ensures that students are at least able to complete coursework and participate.” (Stone, 2020). 


Conclusion, Interactivity, and what attendees are going to learn: 

Now is the time to support increased internet access for students struggling to stay enrolled in college who have limited access to public Wi-Fi or mobility. Wi-Fi has rendered itself a great necessity to the success of not only students of underserved populations but necessary for a more educated and interconnected society. This presentation would be important for educators, leaders in higher education, as well as administrators, to know that this is an important problem. Wi-Fi access for students is a subject matter that is very important. The increase in digital media and online learning has confirmed Wi-Fi is now a necessity. Researching the issues marginalized students may face when it comes to Wi-Fi can only help us retain students we might lose.  One way to actively involve participants is by asking for any issues they experience with students and their Wi-Fi access. Also, a brief survey at the end for participants to add helpful information about Wi-Fi at their institutions of higher learning or communities for added data. 



Stone, A. (2020, November 4). Outdoor Wi-Fi Expands Access for College Students.Technology Solutions That Drive Education.

Stone, A. (2020, November 4). How Higher Ed Is Improving Technology Access for Underserved Students. Technology Solutions That Drive Education.

Ofgang, E. (2020, August 12). How Colleges are Using Tents and Outdoor Classrooms. TechLearningMagazine.

Campus Canopies. Canopies | Coronavirus. (n.d.).

Introducing the SMART CAMPUS - CommScope. (n.d.).

Sublett, C. (2020, November 19). Distant Equity: The Promise and Pitfalls of Online Learning for Students of Color in Higher Education. Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education. 

Palmer, I., & Whistle, W. (2021, January 12). Spending Deal Supports Broadband Access for College Students. New America.