Access to affordable broadband is a challenge for many rural communities. While this challenge has been known to many, the digital inequities for rural communities were amplified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, while everything began to close many rural community college students were left wondering how to stay connected. Over two and a half years later, rural community college leaders are still utilizing innovative means to help bridge the digital equity gap for their students. Today, we are all digitally connected and while the long wait times to connect to the internet via AOL dial-up and hoping that nobody uses the phone while you are online can appear like relics of the past, many individuals in rural communities still have connections that are lagging or prevent them from accessing the internet to engage with their education and society. The Federal Communications Commission defines high-speed broadband as 25/3 Mbps. In a household where multiple people are trying to connect their devices to their home broadband, it can be very difficult to stay connected.
The access and affordability are only two of the stark challenges for rural communities. There is also the need for digital literacy. Digital literacy is defined as the “skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information”. During our recent Peer Learning Network discussion, we continued our conversation on Cultivating Digital Equity. Throughout this discussion, we were able to collaborate with and learn from rural community college leaders about how they are supporting digital inclusion efforts for learners and students on their campus.
Learning for Students
Rural community college leaders indicated that they provide various levels of support for students which promote digital learning on campus. Many of the institutions that attended the PLN discussion stated that they provide laptops/devices to students to engage with their courses. Although the process for these loaner laptop programs have allowed students to have temporary access to a device, some of the institutions are looking for ways to possibly provide a permanent laptop to each student. This would ensure that each student is able to have the ability to stay engaged in their education and would also mitigate the check-out/check-in process that institutions go through at the beginning and end of a semester/year.
Rural community colleges have also provided mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to students that need broadband access. While for some institutions there were mobile hotspots that were found to be unresponsive in certain areas of their communities, they were able to work with local providers to identify other solutions. For example, many of the rural community colleges created mobile Wi-Fi hotspots in their parking lots which allow students to have a location to connect remotely. Additionally, the newly established Affordable Connectivity Program through the FCC can help bridge the digital divide for many rural students.
Additionally, rural community colleges indicated that they offer technical support and training resources to students to ensure that they can engage with the learning management systems utilized by the institution. Also, a few rural institutions stated that they quickly became aware at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that students were reaching out for technical support/assistance at the beginning of a semester and on Sunday evenings (when assignments were due). This prompted these institutions to have dedicated support staff available to students during these times to ensure that any questions were answered, and support was provided as needed.
Another level of support the rural community colleges provide students are access to pods on campus. These pods are areas/rooms on campus that students can reserve to work or study in. This allows students to have a quiet place free from distractions where they can work on assignments, connect remotely with a course, or even connect with a medical or mental health provider.
Training and Digital Literacy
Having access to affordable broadband and the necessary devices to connect students to their digital learning is only half of the picture. The other is ensuring that every individual has access to training for digital learning to obtain the skills they need to navigate the digital landscape. This includes providing students with the necessary training, resources, and guidance on how to connect and engage with their digital learning. The rural community college leaders attending our PLN outlined that the training and resources that are available to students primarily focus on the institutions learning management system. Also, it was noted that while the training resources and guidance are primarily in English, institutions can have these translated for students as requested.
Rural community college leaders also indicated that they provide training to faculty and staff on the institution’s learning management system. Although many institutions are still determining the best strategy to ensure a consistent digital environment and student experience within their LMS, institutions are promoting greater use and communication of these environments. Additionally, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, some institutions are requiring all of their courses to be integrated into their LMS. The ability to have all courses within an institution’s LMS allows a potential seamless student experience as they navigate from course to course. However, there are challenges and barriers that institutions are facing in implementing their LMS across campus.
Barriers in Adopting Broadband Connections and Technologies for Learning
For many individuals and institutions in rural America the top two barriers to digital equity is access to high-speed broadband and affordability. In many rural communities there are limited options for individuals seeking broadband at home and many of these options come with a high price tag which for many is not affordable. Even though rural community colleges have been able to provide mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for students, they have come to find that in areas within their own community, students are not able to utilize these devices to connect to the internet.
Rural community college leaders echoed that funding is another barrier for the continuation of supporting the digital learning for students. Over the last 2.5 years we have witnessed the largest influx of federal funding into education. However, that funding is coming to an end and many institutions currently undergoing budgetary discussions are determining how to overcome budget deficits while providing the same level of services for their students. Many of the services that were put into place for students through this funding has been a great benefit in supporting each student’s education. However, rural institutions are having the inevitable conversation of how to do more with less to support their students digital learning.
There is also a digital learning curve for faculty at rural community colleges. A few community college leaders indicated that many of their primary instructors are adjunct professors that are part-time. This elevates another challenge that rural community colleges face with implementing and LMS on campus. For example, one individual stated that during the first semester of the COVID-19 pandemic an older part-time math teacher was having students mail their homework, which was challenging to say the least. Therefore, training and support are critical to ensuring that all faculty are setup for success with the available technology and LMS to support digital learning for students.
Another barrier for digital learning surrounds the environment and space where the learning is taking place. For example, student parents that are trying to attend a virtual class while sitting at the dining room table might not have the best environment to learn. Also, there might be multiple individuals trying to utilize the same broadband to connect to their class at home, which makes the connection slow or even intermittent. As a result, the broadband connection that a student has is not sufficient to support multiple people working at the same time. Therefore, having the dedicated space for digital learning is key to supporting each student, whether this is a quiet room/space at home or a pod that a student can reserve on campus.
Paving the Way for Digital Equity
For many rural community colleges, it is an active fight to find the funding needed to support their students and providing digital learning opportunities, resources, and tools. Some of these institutions have identified a “digital access team” and/or digital learning champions to help guide their implementation of digital learning tools and resources. It is important to remember that throughout the initial buildout of any digital learning tool or LMS that communication is paramount to success in implementation. Ensure that the team or champions that are driving these new tools are continuously communicating with faculty and staff while engaging students as well.
Rural community college leaders know what works for their students and how they can be setup to succeed. While society has seen advancement in technology and broadband since the days of dial-up internet, rural communities are still put at a disadvantage in having the same access to high-speed broadband. Federal programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program are just a starting point to creating lasting and sustainable change in rural communities. Redefining broadband as a public utility and legalizing municipal broadband are additional opportunities to provide access to affordable high-speed broadband.
Securing available funding to support rural community colleges to help drive lasting and sustainable change will not only help students on campus but also pave the way for a more inclusive digital environment throughout each community. As conversations across the U.S. are taking place in creating state digital equity plans, it is essential that rural community colleges take an active role in these conversations. Sharing the stories of what rural communities are experiencing in providing digital learning tools along with the successes and challenges will help shape the future of digital equity in each state. Thus, rural community college leaders should identify when/where these conversations are taking place in their state and how they can help contribute to their state digital equity plan to support their students.
Sean Robins is the Policy Associate at the Association of Community College Trustees leading the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges Initiative to convene rural community college leaders while providing technical support, assistance, and resources on federal policy and advocacy. This initiative builds on ACCT’s prior work through the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges report that engaged rural community college presidents and trustees to gather information about the challenges faced by these institutions.