In 2007 and 2008, Bethany was a high school senior trying to take an online dual enrollment course from a local college. While most people were getting high speed DSL internet, in the part of the county where Bethany’s family lived the only option was slow dialup internet even though they lived only an hour away from a major southeastern U.S. city. To watch the 3-4 hours of recorded lecture videos per week, Bethany drove to either the local library or a friend’s house—or waited at least 30 minutes for the video to buffer on her family’s slow internet. She had to wait until everyone else had gone to bed to try and watch the video lectures at home because at that time no one else was trying to use the phone or internet (and you cannot receive or make phone calls when using dial-up internet). On Tuesday nights, Bethany drove to a friend’s house across town for an hour to participate in the synchronous instant messenger chat discussions. Even though it was completely text-based, the internet at her house was not fast enough for her to keep up the conversation. If it was not for the generosity of her friends, she would have needed to drop the course.
It wasn’t until Bethany moved to college in the fall of 2008 that she realized how much access to fast, reliable internet made college easier. She created her first social media account because now it wouldn’t take 30 minutes for a picture to upload or 10 minutes for a page filled with pictures to load. Thanks to an initiative in her home county, her parents got high speed internet later that year. She was so thankful because it meant she didn’t have to decide between visiting family for the weekend or getting her homework finished for class.
Bethany assumed that she wouldn’t have to worry about internet access in the future. But ten years later she moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to do field work for her PhD at Virginia Tech. The Eastern Shore is an hour by car from Norfolk and Virginia Beach (closer by boat) and just a few hours away from Washington, D.C., but it is located on a peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Being rural and somewhat isolated, neither high- speed or dial-up internet was not available where she lived on the Eastern Shore. Her only access, as for most of the people in the area, was on a smartphone. Even smartphone access was still limited, because she couldn’t afford an unlimited data plan on a graduate student salary. Other people used mobile hotspots for their internet access but paid several hundred dollars per month and sometimes had trouble connecting during bad weather.
Fortunately, Bethany had internet access at work and other people in the community usually had internet access at school, work, or McDonalds. Bethany and other graduate students on the Eastern Shore had to stay at work late to get their online courses finished or download and print off any work they wanted to do at home. Bethany continued to take some online courses, despite the challenges, because it allowed her to participate in spring and fall research while still completing her classes. One of her classmates worked full time on the Eastern Shore and was working toward a graduate degree from the same university, seven hours away. But Bethany wished that her professors and the students she worked with on group projects understood what it was like to not have internet access after work hours. Some people didn’t believe her that internet access was still a problem in 2016.
Bethany got a job in fall 2019 as an agriculture professor in western Tennessee and didn’t think much more about the problem of internet access until March 2020, when all of her students went home and the entire university pivoted to completely online learning. The day before students left campus, she asked them about their internet access at home. Out of sixty students, 6 students could not stream live videos, 16 students said it took a long time to upload or download large files (any lecture videos) and 11 said they had to leave home to access the internet. All students knew of a place they could go to access the internet, like a local library or school, but it might be a 30- to 60-minute drive from home and soon these locations closed due to pandemic lockdowns. For some students, cell phones were their best access to the internet but not all the Learning Management System (LMS) functions, like quizzes or exams, worked on mobile devices. There were a few students who requested to stay on campus during the lockdowns because they wouldn’t be able to finish their online classes from home.
Bethany considered going to her parents’ house during parts of the pandemic, but she knew that internet access would be inadequate to teach online. Upgraded high-speed broadband internet had not reached the rural portion of the county where Bethany’s parents lived. They had the same internet speeds they got in 2008 but the rest of the internet had moved on and was moving faster. A lecture video that would take 1-2 minutes to upload at work wouldn’t even upload from her parents’ house.
This was really frustrating to Bethany. The experience her students were having was exactly the same one that she had with her first online classes more than a decade ago. Why were the same problems happening? The fact is that rural and certain urban areas have been left behind in their ability to access the internet.
Fortunately, Bethany had learned a thing or two about how to navigate online classes with limited internet access. She encouraged students to use the mobile versions of the LMS and other online content that worked well in apps. For example, YouTube videos are much easier to watch on a phone than videos uploaded to an LMS. However, she let her students know that they needed to plan ahead because it was going to be very hard to take quizzes using the mobile LMS app. She made all of her lecture videos downloadable and provided a downloadable, printable Word document with all of the text from pages within her LMS. Bethany intentionally set the assignment deadlines during the day on a weekday, when locations that provided free internet would be open. She let students know that she was willing to adjust the due dates on assignments or online exams if they knew they wouldn’t have internet access on certain days and several students used this accommodation. Bethany was really excited about using Flipgrid, a video-based discussion app, with one of her classes but soon discovered that some students didn’t have enough internet bandwidth to use the app. So, she had to create an asynchronous discussion board assignment for students who couldn’t use the app.
Online classes continued in fall 2020 and spring 2021. Most students were adjusting well to online classes but she still came across a few unexpected situations. Bethany was talking with Henry, a student in one of her classes, and learned that Henry’s grandfather had a heart attack at the start of the semester and while he was recovering, could not take care of the family farm. Henry and his high school aged sister were splitting the farm work their grandfather used to do. Henry took care of the farm Wednesday night through Sunday morning and then returned to campus Sunday night through Wednesday morning. At first, he was not able to access the internet at home but then was able to get a free hotspot from the university for the semester. At the end of the semester Henry told Bethany he would not have been able to finish the semester without that free hotspot. Other issues occurred when a major snow and ice storm hit the southeast and the university stayed open because most people were teaching online anyway. But students who lost power, internet, or water during the storm had a really hard time keeping up with their course work. In some cases, students could not even let their professors know they were without internet or power until almost a week later. Even in an area with high-speed broadband access, some students might not have internet access because they could not afford to pay for it.
So, what can you do to support students who might have limited internet access?
- Ask students at the beginning of the semester about their internet access at home, around campus, during the week, on weekends, and over breaks.
- Think about how you can make most or all of your course material available in an offline format.
- Upload or share lower resolution versions of files for faster upload and download times.
- Test out the functions available in app versions of your LMS and other teaching technologies.
- Test or ask students to test apps or programs in a slow or limited internet area.
- Be intentional about assignment due dates and times and let students know if due dates can be adjusted.
- Advocate for greater internet access for your students and the communities where they live.
- How to cite this vignette:
Wolters, B. 2022. No really, I don’t have internet. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0. ↵