Inequitable Broadband Access May Hinder Rural Students’ Online Learning

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – College students and faculty who live in rural areas and on farms may lack high-speed internet and face barriers with synchronous instruction as virtual learning continues, according to a group of science educators.

For rural America to keep up with the rest of the society, rural broadband access needs to be improved and extended across the country, they write in National Sciences Education.

“In our increasingly internet-dependent world, the ability to stay competitive in education, in business, and in life requires quality access to high-speed internet,” said lead author Dr. Maria Boerngen of the Illinois State University Department of Agriculture, in Normal, Illinois.

During the sudden transition to online instruction last spring, one of the first choices that faculty had to make was whether to teach synchronously, or “live,” versus asynchronously with recorded audio and video, Dr. Boerngen said.

“We knew that the lack of good rural broadband was going to create barriers for synchronous instruction – not only for our rural students but also for some faculty members,” she told Reuters Health by email.

Dr. Boerngen and colleague Dr. Justin Rickard, who said he lacks high-speed internet access at home, write about the challenges that students and teachers have faced during the pandemic. They both decided to teach asynchronously after researching best practices and assessing broadband capabilities. Fellow colleagues had to make the same difficult decision, they said.

“Unfortunately, there is a common misperception that unless an instruction is ‘live’ online with students, that instructor is not really doing his or her job,” Dr. Boerngen said.

In agriculture education in particular, faculty have discussed the value of “real-world” content since the 1920s, including hands-on experiences on farms, Drs. Boerngen and Rickard wrote.

Agriculture disciplines, as well as all education fields, have adapted to new technology and the opportunities that the internet can provide. University faculty and K-12 teachers have embraced online platforms for lecture presentations, discussion forums and automated grading. At the same time, the disruption of 2020 challenged the priorities of delivering quality education in online-only formats.

“It is worth pointing out that prior to the pandemic, most online teaching was done asynchronously,” Dr. Boerngen said. “Over the past 12 months, educators at all levels have been under a microscope as we have quickly adapted our teaching methods to provide the best instruction we can in unprecedented circumstances.”

During the fall semester of 2018, just under 35% of post-secondary students were enrolled in at least one online class, and in 2019, about 46% of faculty reported online teaching experience, the authors write. This shifted to 100% in 2020 and has gradually moved toward a hybrid model. About 40% of rural institutions were fully or primarily online last year, which has deepened the rural-urban digital divide, they wrote.

Although broadband service has expanded during the past decade, disparities still remain, the authors add. Recent studies have shown that up to 163 million Americans may not have broadband access, which creates barriers that prevent students from thriving in an online environment.

For instance, although Illinois State University is located in an urban area with several high-speed internet service providers, more than a third of undergraduate agriculture majors grew up on farms, the authors write.

The majority of farms in the U.S. have internet access, but about 43% may fall into the digital divide without high-speed access. If students take online classes from home during the pandemic, they may face challenges and fall behind.

“The pandemic has heightened an already important issue of broadband access,” said Dr. Chris Reddick of the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dr. Reddick, who wasn’t involved with this paper, has written about the determinants of broadband access in America.

Rural areas often don’t have the infrastructure to support broadband access in the same way that densely populated urban areas do, he said. Telecommunications companies also may not be willing to spend money on the infrastructure.

“This puts those students in rural areas especially behind during the pandemic,” he told Reuters Health by email. “Governments should be aware that the digital divide is especially hard on groups in lower socioeconomic statuses.”

SOURCE: National Sciences Education, online February 23, 2021.

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