Finding a Connection: Broadband Access a Barrier to Remote Learning

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the education world’s slow and steady adoption of internet-based technologies abruptly went full-throttle, making online learning the primary method of instruction for the first time.

“Even before COVID, we had been experimenting with different types of online programs and delivery models to figure out what was the right modality for this new generation,” said Soumya Sen. “What COVID has done is force us to fast-track that process in terms of moving courses online.”

While the internet has become an essential learning resource during the pandemic, students’ access to it has failed to follow suit, especially in rural areas. Sen, PhD, associate professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said many in the US struggle with poor connectivity, slow connectivity, or no connectivity, creating huge obstacles for some students as they try to adapt to online learning. His research explores how business, policy, and logistical factors can align to make high-speed internet accessible not just to students, but to people in all aspects of life.

Under the pandemic, some families are having to pay for internet service for the first time, in some cases while weathering furloughs or layoffs. A first step in helping these families is to help them find the lowest-cost plans from their internet service providers (ISPs) as well as where they can access free, public internet in their communities, Sen said.

More creative solutions can also help communities get by for now. Some school districts have set up WiFi hotspots outside of their closed buildings, allowing students to show up once or twice a week on their own schedule to download the materials they need and turn in assignments digitally. Other districts are setting aside money from their budgets to cover part of students’ cellular data plans, ensuring they can access course materials on the phones or tablets they already own. In more remote areas, some teachers are even prerecording their lectures as videos on USB drives and distributing them to students by postal mail.

ISPs have taken some voluntary steps to help during the pandemic, such as relaxing data use limits, opening up their public Wi-Fi hotspots, and temporarily waiving disconnections for nonpaying customers. While these actions will help in the short term, Sen said, schools, students, and providers will need to find better ways going forward to support a greater reliance on digital learning.

Of Cables and Peaks

It takes infrastructure to deliver internet, and therein lies the challenge. The large geographical size of the US, coupled with its relatively sparse population, makes it trickier to connect everyone here than it is in Europe or Asia, Sen said. ISPs may hesitate to lay down new cable that bring access to lightly populated areas if the resulting business will bring too little revenue to cover the infrastructure costs.

Areas that already have the infrastructure face their own issues. The video-rich nature of modern remote learning, with its prerecorded lectures and live class sessions streaming to hundreds of devices at once, demand large amounts of bandwidth. While all these visuals help students understand and remember concepts better, they strain slow internet connections and push users over the data limits set by their ISPs.

Sen, who has collaborated with providers like AT&T and Comcast, is interested in discovering new ways to balance the needs of residents and schools with the business considerations of service providers.

“How can we help ISPs create data plans that are cost effective for them but also cheap enough for consumers to find balance?” he said.

There are a few ideas communities and ISPs can take advantage of now. The first is to automate the way mobile devices connect to WiFi, allowing them to predict when WiFi options will be available and shift the bulk of their data use from a costly, limited cell network to the WiFi connection. Such a model could even display messages to users that encourage them to save data-intensive tasks like watching videos until they reach the WiFi.

ISPs can also keep too many simultaneous users from overloading the infrastructure by incentivizing delayed internet use. Building the infrastructure to support large peak times is expensive and drives up the cost for customers, but by offering users price discounts to delay their activity online for a certain number of minutes, ISPs can both reduce the demand on their networks and the charge on their customers’ bills.

Finally, Sen sees an opportunity to subsidize the cost of access through advertising. If a given user hits the upper limit of their data plan but still needs to use the internet, they might choose to watch an advertisement in exchange for a certain amount of additional, no-cost data. This type of data plan is known as a sponsored data plan.

Learning After COVID

While in-person learning is likely to resume as the norm in many places after the pandemic ends, Sen said the widespread adoption of remote learning will change the way education looks going forward.

As one example, schools may adopt a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning by using a flipped classroom setting. Under such a model, lectures could be prerecorded and provided to students in advance, allowing them to learn individually on their own schedule. They would then attend in-class sessions to ask questions and clarifications about the material or participate in case studies and group activities, making the best use of in-person time for teachers and students alike.

Whatever the specifics look like, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital learning by forcing people to experience technologies that they wouldn’t otherwise have tried. Sen said it’s important for this progress to continue because better integrating the internet into school curricula dramatically expands what a student can get from the local library or an in-person classroom.

“That’s something I think the policymakers have to address, not just as a response to COVID, but for the long-term: our need to have access to content from all over the world,” Sen said. “It requires us to think about a digital-first strategy for the US, and it requires significant investment. That’s where we start.”