Monday, August 31, 2020

Access to the Internet: A Challenge Not Always So Easy to Solve


I am writing this blog post while the Google Fiber technician is doing his installation work at my house, because our existing cable access to the internet is barely sufficient for my husband’s teaching over zoom.  As the technician explained, our download speeds might be fast, but our upload speeds are capped by the cable company, making zoom and facetime and similar live-video-stream connections frequently pause in mid-sentence.  I’m one of the lucky ones – I can afford to pay for whichever internet access service best suits our family’s needs and multiple services are available in my neighborhood.

This blog post is the second in a series that explores the barriers to allowing anyone anywhere to obtain quality education online (the Straube Foundation’s mission).   The first post analyzed the challenge of universal access to online learning-capable devices (laptop computers and tablets).  Today’s post will look at the challenge of accessing the internet to take advantage of online learning opportunities.

Students’ lack of access to the internet has been called “the homework gap,” “a national crisis,”  an “educational crisis.”  While I will focus on the lack of access to internet in the United States, this is an international problem. 

Before the coronavirus changed our daily lives, students of all ages went to their schools, libraries, community centers and other public places to access the internet.  Now, in the time of Covid, these places are closed and free access to the internet is much harder to find.  A picture of two elementary school children in California sitting in the parking lot of a Taco Bell restaurant to access the wifi for their online lessons went viral recently.   College students have been seen spending the day in their cars in a parking lot to access the wifi from adjacent businesses.  That is a resourceful solution to the internet access problem, but not a sustainable one.

Some communities are trying to provide Covid-protective community center locations to give those who need it access to the internet.  While this is well-intentioned, I don’t know that I would feel safe spending much time doing my studies in such places.  I hope these communities will maintain these internet hubs in the post-Covid era, as that will be very useful.

Many schools and local governments have been giving away wifi hot spots to students that don’t currently have internet access.  Many of the laptops and tablets that are being given to needy students, as discussed in my previous post, include wifi hot spots.  This strategy assumes, however, that the communities in which the students live have good internet coverage.  In many rural parts of the US, including the Navajo Nation, this is not the case, meaning that students have to figure out where to take their new hot-spot containing device to be able to access the online classes they need to attend.

Some college students are renting large houses (college collab houses), in part to emulate the dorm experience their colleges are not providing this fall, and in part to ensure that they have the access to internet they’ll need to do their coursework online.

Education policy makers are making the argument that universal broadband coverage – internet access for all – should be considered a public utility, an essential feature of everyday life, much as we consider electricity and culinary water.  The quest for universal broadband coverage will require two separate actions:  installation of internet infrastructure that reaches all populated areas of the country, and attention to the affordability of the available internet coverage.  The US House of Representatives considered providing funding to address the affordability issue as part of the first coronavirus stimulus bill.

Online education requires access to the internet.  Providing that access to all students, free of charge, is a laudable goal, but difficult to implement.  The solutions have to be tailored to the students’ specific situations and geography.


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