The Other Homework Gap

I snagged today’s blog title from Christopher Ali, a professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He recently wrote an article for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society that reminds us that there is a second homework gap in addition to the one in K12 schools. There are almost 20 million college and graduate students across the country, most of which have been recently been notified that most or all of the fall semester this year will be done online.

Secondary education has already been in the process of migrating online. Eduventures estimated that the percentage of students already tackling an online degree before the pandemic was 29% of those pursuing an associate’s degree, 42% for a bachelor’s degree, 27% for a master’s degree and 3% of those working towards a doctorate. In the fall of 2020, nearly all secondary students will have some or all of the curriculum online.

Most college and university campuses have good broadband. Most campuses across the country are connected with fiber, coming in part from the effort by the folks at Internet2 which connects 321 universities to transmit data between campuses at gigabit speeds. Most college campuses have good broadband to classrooms, dorms, along with campuswide WiFi that enables students to easily connect to university data networks.

But the pandemic has sent college students home for the fall semester where they will have to take coursework online. Far too many students come from homes without good broadband. We’ve known for years that there are millions of rural homes without good broadband. But it’s easy to forget that 10% to 30% of the homes in various urban markets have no broadband, at home, mostly due to affordability issues. Ali says there are still 42 million Americans without home broadband.

In many states, school systems are finding broadband solutions for K12 students without broadband. Almost every state and county I’ve talked to since the start of the pandemic has one or more programs to connect K12 students. Many are providing cellular hotspots. Unfortunately, this is not always a great solution since many rural homes also don’t have a good cellular signal. Other schools are spreading hotpots around the community so that students can drive or walk to get broadband access. But nobody is making these same efforts for college students. These students are largely on their own, and there is no doubt that the lack of broadband will cause students to drop out of school.

Since broadband research is Ali’s field, he’s sensitive to the plight of his students and has designed a curriculum that will work for students who can get only rudimentary access to broadband. He’s prerecording classes so that students can download files rather than having to make a 2-way video connection. He’s gone old-school and has enabled group chats as a low-bandwidth way to have a dialogue with students.

But most college professors are not accommodating students without broadband. I have a daughter who is a senior at Texas Tech, and she tells me about the challenges of doing classes online. For example, she took a class in American Sign Language in the spring semester which become extremely challenging when moved online in the middle of the semester. Her professor is deaf and all communication during the course is done using sign language – which is hard to make work with twenty students online at the same time. She also has been taking science classes with labs that have been watered down due to going online. There are some aspects of college courses that will never translate well into an online format. It’s hard to picture how students taking a dance class, an anatomy dissection lab, or an advanced electronics lab class can transition easily to online. Some topics require hands-on experience.

At some point we’ll be out of the pandemic and back to normal, whatever that might come to mean. A big concern for universities is that they might lose a substantial portion of their current student population who are unable to keep up online. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, other than perhaps the kinds of steps that Ali is taking to accommodate students with low bandwidth. Universities can’t easily tackle the same solutions as K12 schools because their student base is likely dispersed widely. Universities are scrambling to figure this out, but if they don’t have a broadband contingency plan in place by now it’s too late for this school year.