Varied accessibility to broadband internet has compromised the quality of education for University students, as most classes are online and rely on high speed internet for synchronous remote learning — just 27 percent of classes have an in-person component.
Broadband refers to a high-speed internet that is always on. According to a report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, approximately 10 percent of college students in Virginia do not have access to broadband. For Virginia students overall, those in rural areas tend to have less access than those in urban areas. The University, the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County are all classified as rural according to the report.
Fourth-year College student Avery Gagne stayed home in Mechanicsville, Va. when students were sent back last spring and for the first two weeks of this semester. He has only one internet service provider available at his address. As a result, he had no choice but to make do with what he characterized as “slow, poor low bandwidth.”
“A lot of it was frantically running from room to room in my house trying to find a place where the internet connection worked,” Gagne said.
Skylar Wampler, a fourth-year College student, moved to off-Grounds housing at The Standard in July in order to take an online summer class required to graduate on time. With the funding she receives as an Access U.Va. scholar, Wampler was able to relocate from her hometown of Broadway, Va. to access faster and more consistent internet.
“I live in the middle of the woods and there's no possible way to even run high speed internet out there,” Wampler said. “I would have taken a leave of absence this semester if I couldn't have access to The Standard.”
Staying home for the first two weeks of the semester also led to academic consequences for Gagne. Sept. 8, the first day of in-person classes, was also the add deadline for students in the College, while the drop deadline was extended to Oct. 12 and withdrawal to Oct. 20. Gagne expressed concern over the “gatekeeping” nature of online classes that made it difficult for students to shop around without already being enrolled with access to meetings.
“But one of my professors in the class that I've now dropped does a thing where having your video on was like extra credit, which ... sucks,” he said. “I have to turn off my video to make my internet work so I can actually understand what's happening.”
Gagne mentioned how not every professor records their synchronous lectures, which negatively impacts students who are unable to maintain a strong internet connection for the entire duration of a class.
U.Va. has received $12.6 million for COVID-related financial needs from the U.S. Department of Education’s CARES Act — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Per the CARES Act, at least half of the funds must be provided as Emergency Financial Aid Grants for students. Students can apply for technology-related assistance and general assistance. Other forms of financial aid such as Bridge Scholarships have also been established by the University.
Since the release of the streamlined application process last May, over 3,000 students have received emergency financial aid so far. Of those 3,000 students, 1,350 were given a total of about $1.36 million in funding for technology. CARES Act funding is still available for both technological and non-technological related needs through next spring.
“This funding has been used for hardware, software, internet access and hotspots to ensure that students are able to attend classes virtually, even in areas of unreliable internet,” said Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations.
Hester also mentions the Laptops for Students Program that provides low-income students with laptops through Student Financial Aid. Around 100 laptops have been supplied this year.
Gagne did not recall hearing that CARES funding was available.
“I'm gonna be honest, that was never communicated to me,” he said. “And even if they sent an email it could have easily gotten lost under the deluge of emails that they've been sending in the lead up to moving back on Grounds.”
Dean of Students Allen Groves notified students of CARES funding opportunities in an April 22 email. The University later removed a June 1 deadline to receive the financial aid.
Wampler replied similarly, but she was able to learn about the CARES Act through a friend and successfully received grants twice through the general aid application. She did not apply for technological aid.
“The CARES Act would only help with a technological situation if I needed, like, a computer or a hotspot, but because of where I live, I couldn't even get a hotspot,” Wampler said. “It's really in the middle of nowhere ... the cell towers just don't reach that far.”
While taking classes from home last spring semester, Wampler was able to mitigate the effects of poor internet by receiving a Student Disability Access Center accomodation. Her professors were notified of her technological situation and accordingly adjusted class expectations for her. Deadlines to view lectures were extended, for example, and Wampler was also exempted from requirements to participate in online synchronous classes.
“I did do all the work,” Wampler said. “I did end up watching all the lectures at some point, I just couldn't always be there.”
In order to receive the accommodation, however, Wampler had to reach out to U.Va. Internet Technology Services and Financial Aid for help and was initially rejected. Her dean ended up putting her in contact with SDAC.
“It was a really long process,” she said. “It was also very stressful, obviously, because ... I didn't know what was going to happen to my academics.”
Workarounds for poor internet service include using mobile hotspots or going to public locations with free Wi-Fi. Albemarle County’s interactive map includes the locations of various public Wi-Fi hotspots. Ting Internet — a fiber internet service provider — has set up a free “Park and Wi-Fi” spot at IX Park as well, available from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday.
Wampler’s cellular plan provides 20 gigabytes of data per month, which was just enough to get her through the rest of spring semester, although the connection was inconsistent. Other alternatives Wampler employed involved going to a friend’s house in the city or to her family’s church to connect to their internet.
Gagne used a mobile hotspot once as a last resort, but he does not have sufficient data to use it consistently.
The two-week self-quarantine that Gagne underwent to return to Grounds overlapped with the period of online-only classes. During the quarantine, Gagne was unable to leave his home to access publicly available Wi-Fi.
Once Gagne returned to Charlottesville and gained access to broadband, his ability to engage with online classes significantly improved. He understands, however, that not every student is able to come back to Grounds.
“It just felt like ... the whole planning thing was based off of the assumption that students would have Charlottesville-level quality internet,” he said.
Gagne believes maintaining accomodations from spring semester could be a way the University could help account for varied internet accessibility for students.
“I think having the same grading system as last semester would be the most responsible thing to do,” he said. “I wasn't getting the full educational value out of the classes I had signed up for, but at least I didn't have to worry about that negatively impacting my GPA.”
“It really made me feel more secure in my situation that I could do Credit/No Credit if I so chose,” Wampler said about last semester. “The fact that Credit/No Credit is not an option for the semester really astounds me.”
Both Gagne and Wampler appreciate the level of accomodation professors provided in spring.
“I am really grateful to the people that tried to help me with my internet situation, and I'm really grateful to my professors for being so flexible,” Wampler said.
One way professors could help students, Gagne said, would be by recording lectures so students can review information they may have missed in class due to poor internet connection.
Similarly, Gagne mentions exploring alternate methods of graded participation that do not rely on live discussion, such as discussion board posts.