One of the most important parts of my job at Benedictine University is to assist faculty in the design of engaging and academically rigorous online course content. Typically, those courses are offered to students who have entered a blended or hybrid program, and they understand the technical requirements in advance of their enrollment. However, we all witnessed too many traditional faculty and students struggle with the transition to remote teaching during the spring 2020 semester. Once the frenzy of moving traditional courses online subsided in May, I decided to find out first-hand how traditional college students fared online.
With the approval of the Benedictine University IRB, I devised a short survey to be delivered anonymously online to as many Illinois college students as possible in a 30-day period. The survey questions were designed to gather information about students’ computer access at home, study space, and about their connectivity to the internet. Interestingly, 95% of the 421 respondents indicated they have access to a computer or laptop at home. Often, we consider the “digital divide” to be the gulf between those students who have computers and those students who do not, but these survey results reveal there isn’t necessarily a divide in access to equipment. The real issue with eLearning for some college students is reliable access to the internet. Nearly 25% of the survey respondents indicated they do not have high-speed internet access at home, which means approximately 100 students of those I surveyed were not able to meet virtually with their instructors and classmates nor participate in eLearning activities from home. We can only guess what those students did to get by – for example, some reports have indicated that students used free WiFi from their cars outside of businesses.
Researchers have reported for years on internet connectivity insecurity. A Pew Research Center’s analysis of the 2013 American Community Survey suggested 31.4% of families with school-aged children and whose household income is less than $50,000 did not have access to high-speed internet at home. Amy Gonzales concluded the “digital divide” is no longer simply a lack of access to computers, but rather having internet access that is “is unstable and characterized by frequent periods of disconnection.”
Most people recognize that the spring 2020 semester was a unique one with very little time for faculty to plan; never-the-less, a whopping 69% of my survey’s respondents either disagreed or totally disagreed with the statement “My learning experience continued to be fulfilling and engaging during the stay at home order.” Part of that discontent can be attributed to how quickly faculty were expected to deliver their content online, but we must do better this fall which is only a few weeks away. How will institutions who decide to remain online, or who are quickly forced to return online, ensure their traditional students are engaged in an eLearning environment? Two components must be considered: First, we must set higher expectations for quality online or hybrid course design that considers traditional college students’ needs, and second, we must recognize that a sizeable percentage of students probably do not have reliable internet access at home.
The final question of my survey gave students the opportunity to comment freely on their online learning experience. Familiar themes were lack of motivation to study or engage in course work, and general anxiety about their situations. One student explained, “It was hard to keep up with things on my own, I felt like I had less support, and being so secluded and confused took a toll on my mental health. I was able to pull through, but not without overcoming many obstacles throughout the remainder of the semester.” Several students voiced their displeasure for not receiving a partial tuition refund: “tuition was way to [sic] much for an online course… We had limited resources yet were paying a lot of money.”
In order to retain students, they cannot feel that their resources are “limited,” even in an eLearning environment, and I suspect most institutions have everything they need to deliver high-quality eLearning experiences. The challenge is connecting those who have the knowledge and talent in designing online course content with traditional faculty during the summer break, and for faculty to be open to new ways of teaching. Skillfully designed online courses can provide students with the resources they need to succeed, opportunities for connecting with their peers and instructors, and activities and assignments that are rigorous and meaningful.
The second issue that must be considered now in order to prepare for the fall semester is the lack of high-speed internet access for some students. With the likelihood that nearly 25% of an institution’s student body do not have access to reliable high-speed internet at home, those students must be actively encouraged to remain on campus, even if states impose shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders. Student Services offices will often allow students to petition to remain on campus during holidays and breaks. Likewise, internet connectivity insecurity at home should be recognized as an acceptable reason for a student to stay on campus until the pandemic is under control.
The limitations on communal gatherings caused by the COVID 19 pandemic is undoubtedly the greatest challenge that most educators will ever face; nevertheless, we are in a better place today. With the benefit of reflection, we can recognize where we may have fell short in delivering a quality eLearning experience in the spring in order to make better decisions next semester.
Amy Lakin has been working in higher education for 23 years. Her experience includes teaching first-year composition full-time and serving as division chair. In her current position as the Director of Student Academic Support Services and Design at Benedictine University, she orients adult students to online and accelerated learning, manages instructional designers, and supports faculty in applying the criteria of the OSCQR Course Design Scorecard to their online and blended courses. Her current interests include ADA/web accessibility, applying the principles of UDL, and wearing a mask and practicing social distancing in public.