California State University Students’ Experiences with Connectivity and Technology in the Pandemic
In early 2021, EDUCAUSE reported on a survey related to students' experiences with connectivity and technology in the pandemic.
For that fall 2020 survey, 8,392 students from 54 US institutions provided information about internet connectivity, technical troubleshooting, and impacts to schoolwork. To explore students' challenges in these areas, we partnered with the California State University (CSU) to conduct a series of focus groups with students from four CSU campuses: California State University, Fresno; Humboldt State University; San Diego State University; and California State University, Northridge (CSUN). A total of 28 undergraduate students participated in the focus groups over late spring and summer 2021 (see figure 1). See the appendix for the full set of focus group questions. Higher education administrators, faculty, and IT units will find this report helpful as they draw parallels between CSU students' experiences and other local contexts.
- Most students experienced at least intermittent connectivity issues, but students who lived on campus or had financial support from family described more stable internet access.
- Even intermittent connectivity issues were stressful for students because the issues exacerbated other technical challenges and posed challenges to satisfying course policies such as attendance and assignment deadlines.
- Students were overwhelmed by obstacles related to inadequate hardware, incompatible operating systems, and the use of many required applications.
- Students were often unaware of existing educational technology resources on their campuses, indicating that existing communication strategies are likely insufficient.
Steps Institutional Leaders Can Take
- Design course policies and assignments with flexible structures so that issues with connectivity and device access do not negatively impact students' grades.
- Simplify technology implementation both within and across classes so that students are not overwhelmed by technological demands.
- Collaborate with communications experts to meet students where they are, and ask students how (and how often) they want to hear about timely resources.
- Conduct focus groups at your institution to hear about students' experiences (and their ideas for solutions to tough problems).
Steps CSU Leaders Took to Reduce the Impact of the Pandemic
Distributed more than 21,000 new laptops and 10,000 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to students (an investment of over $18 million)
Provided supplementary equipment such as webcams and headsets
Expanded outdoor Wi-Fi in areas such as parking lots
Subsidized low-cost internet for students at home
Where and How Students Studied
At home or in the dorms, anxiety about connectivity was a constant companion. Even infrequent interruptions to students' internet access can be extremely disruptive, particularly because the timing and duration of those disruptions are unpredictable. Though previous findings indicate that students generally have access to reliable internet, CSU focus group participants described the complexities of their experiences with internet access. The participants mostly studied from home, creating connectivity challenges as well as other distractions.
"I'm renting a room from friends. The internet is really spotty. There's like two places in the house where I have internet, and there's three kids under the age of five in the house, so that makes it a little hard to hear over Zoom sometimes."
"I came back home, so I was staying with my parents and there were a couple of kids in the house. It was a lot more challenging. Sometimes I had to do work in my car, and the internet is not the greatest there."
"I've been at home too this entire time…. I actually dealt with a lot of connectivity issues…. The area that I live in—I believe a tower fell and they just never put it back up. And my area itself is just kind of like away from the city, so just because of my location I deal with a lot of connectivity issues."
In contrast, some participants who lived on campus or had more financial support from their families reported more stable connectivity through remote learning. For example, students in dorms described "a great experience, the technology there, the internet speed, everything was on target" despite the occasional outage. Others had reliable connections at home: "My parents were fortunate enough to let me have an apartment on my own, and they pay for my internet and everything. So they made sure that I was set so I wouldn't have any issues."
Students went mobile to solve connectivity issues. Students never gave up when faced with connectivity challenges. Instead, they turned to hotspots or cell phones to access the internet from home. Similar to the students in our national sample, when the going got really tough, CSU students got going—to a different location (see figure 2).
Although these students were willing to do whatever it took to complete their coursework, their perseverance came at a cost. Many of them described the impact of the year in terms of stress and anxiety.
Anxiety and Empathy
All roads lead to stress, stress, and more stress. Some students in our national survey reported that device issues resulted in a range of consequences, including missing classes and deadlines and preventing them from completing class tasks (see figure 3). In our focus groups, we asked students to provide more detail about how poor connectivity and underpowered technology impacted their studies. In addition to the frustrations we all face related to basic internet access and technical troubleshooting in the digital age, focus group participants described three major sources of stress: tech fatigue (e.g., Zoom fatigue), course policies, and financial constraints.
One CSU student described the impact of Zoom fatigue on his learning: "You're just kind of a body on the other side of the screen, and some classes…it's not engaging at all, and you just kind of lose focus and interest in the entire subject matter." Another student agreed, indicating they would be "on a laptop like 14, 15 hours a day…. It's really difficult actually learning and actually focusing on the subject matter of the class." Another student added that taking screen breaks was necessary but noted "that was really frustrating for me, because then it would just make my schoolwork way longer because I was spending so much time and I had to give myself that time to take breaks."
The stress of long days on screens was amplified by course policies that left no room for commonplace technology hiccups. Though focus group students generally indicated that these policies were not enforced in the long run, the mere threat of these policies incited fear and anxiety.
"One of my professors, we did our midterms and finals on camera through Zoom, but if your internet connection dropped at all, our grade would be a zero for that assignment, so I made sure all my family members did not use the internet and bandwidth at all. And it worked out all the time, but it was shaky at times."
"[The] first day I remember my internet started cutting out, and I got scared because I remember reading on the syllabus that one class was like, if you did not attend, you know today, then you are automatically kicked out. I was like, please don't let that happen."
Students described how technical challenges were related to financial constraints, impacting their ability to focus on classes. As one student explained: "It just kind of made me feel, like, poor…like I need to get a better computer…[because] I can't even take a test with this."
Another student explained that similar financial challenges directly impacted her in class:
"For me, the biggest issue was just dealing with even being able to get some of the technology, so basically money…. Having to just already deal with COVID, and I got laid off for a period of time…. Having to pay for [software] on top of everything else was a really big struggle, and that made everything more stressful…. And it can be hard to stay even focused on the class because you're sitting here wondering, how am I even going to be able to afford it?"
Read more about supporting the student experience by meeting students where they are in our Looking Beyond Technology for Inclusive Student Success Showcase.
Empathy is not always a two-way street. Focus group participants agreed that "the majority of professors are pretty understanding about technology," generally expressing empathy about students' connectivity issues by not adhering to strict syllabus policies. Students returned this empathy when their instructors struggled with technology, and a sense emerged that students and instructors were allied by their common challenges.
"There's like this consensus of, it's okay for things to fail right now because our professors don't know what they're doing, our mentors don't know what they're doing, our students don't know what we're doing, so that everyone was kind of in the same pickle, [which] was really nice."
However, students reported other instances in which instructors lacked empathy for their struggles. This lack of empathy resulted in increased frustration and a general sense of disconnection.
"For me it's a little bit easier to understand the teacher side of it just because my mom is a teacher, but I still have a hard time when they don't understand the student side…. It's just frustrating."
"I have come across some professors who say, My internet's fine, my Wi-Fi's fine, so yours should be fine."
One student described this lack of empathy as a "power imbalance—it's okay for [faculty] to email us [and say], I have Wi-Fi issues, I cannot attend class. But for us, they get angry." Similarly, another student recounted:
"I even had a professor who told us, 'Your internet is bad, just switch providers…,' and a lot of us [have] the cheapest option, and I know a lot of us also work…. I work almost every day because I have to support myself…. I feel like a lot of professors don't understand."
These findings suggest that the exchange of empathy between students and faculty may have played a role in students' overall well-being during this period of remote learning. Additionally, in the fall 2020 survey, 81% of student respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the instructor for the course in which they were learning the most had reasonable technology policies/accommodations for completing work and submitting assignments. Open-ended responses to that same survey were in alignment with the findings of this focus group: student learning is sabotaged by practices such as unnecessarily harsh syllabus policies and not allowing flexibility in assignment deadlines due to technical difficulties. All of these findings are consistent with the idea that supporting students' autonomy and safety promotes their learning.
Read more about designing high-quality and accessible learning experiences in our Engaging Students by Design Showcase.
The Role of Campus IT
Students find tech support close to home. Consistent with the results of our national study, most of the CSU focus group participants did their own troubleshooting or asked friends and family for help.
"I know a small amount about technology and how to work around these types of issues…. Quick issue, quick solutions are usually more effective than trying to get in contact with somebody who's going to come back to you in a couple days…. I also know quite a few people who are in IT themselves, so I work around it in that way, if needed."
We found that students relied on these personal solutions because they felt they could handle the issues on their own, they thought the issues would not be under the purview of available services, and they didn't know what IT services could do for them (see figure 4).
When students did use IT services it was rarely for troubleshooting assistance and more often for help with printing or to borrow university-owned hardware such as laptops or mobile hotspots.
Even reliable devices have bad days. In keeping with previous findings, CSU focus group participants reported that both personal and university devices could be inadequate to complete educational tasks.
"I remember trying to use Excel…, but for some reason it wouldn't work on the computer given to me by the university."
"When I was having an issue with the LockDown Browser I would try three of my roommates' computers, and none of them were working…. Halfway through the semester one of my other roommates—her computer worked for it…. And so we would have to try to figure out a schedule… and that was really frustrating trying to go back and forth."
"Sometimes when [my laptop's] running it just gets really hot, and I can't really use it anymore."
When students were not challenged with inadequate hardware, they were juggling operating system compatibility issues and felt overwhelmed by the number of applications they needed to use to complete and turn in their work.
"Sometimes it could be a real hassle trying to get a program that mostly works on Windows to run on iOS. It's really frustrating to have to go through the hoops to even just be able to submit an assignment."
"Using like seven different applications to turn in homework. So it's like for this class, I have to do Blackboard. This class I have to do Canvas. This class I have to post something on Instagram…. It was just like using that many applications and just being on a laptop for like 15 hours a day, not counting Zoom."
Several CSU students suggested that all the computers should have "all the programs that students use…so when they get it, no student has to wonder, Is this program going to work?"
Students' Awareness of Resources
"I heard from a friend…who heard it from a friend…" Many of the focus group participants reported that they often did not know about resources until they heard about them through friends or until it was too late to access the resources they needed.
"I think the university was providing [hotspots] at some point, but I heard from a friend that they were doing that, so I don't know how the university's reaching out to students."
"I actually heard about the hotspots from one of my friends, but that was the only way that I knew about it. I didn't know that it existed outside of that. So I had tried to get it last semester, and they said…they would email me when it was available, and then I never got an email, so that whole semester [I] didn't have one."
Some CSU students learned about some university resources only through this focus group, so they either borrowed what they needed from their personal networks or purchased additional supplies on their own.
"I've never been told that hotspots were available, so I don't know if they are, but I just took the liberty to purchase it on my own so that I had something."
Students want to hear about resources from everyone, all the time. Students had abundant ideas for improving communication about resources. In general, students recommended increasing the frequency and sources of communication.
"Even if [professors] send out the emails, not all the students read it. But if you come through the professors as a reminder in every class, then people know the services are available."
"I was lucky enough to have an advisor to let me know of the resources that I could get when I needed them…. I think a lot of students don't know that [the university] does have a bunch of resources."
"[The university] emailed once I believe in the spring about hotspots…. They never emailed again, so freshmen this year don't know about it, transfer students don't know about it…. So I think that's one issue that campus should really email every semester or every so often to help students with issues."
Other ideas from students included directly text-messaging students, providing information about resources in the student portal or LMS, and creating online forums where students can not only access information about resources but also troubleshoot technical issues.
Conclusions: Looking Ahead
The pandemic has propelled digital transformation and expanded access. Some CSU students pointed out the opportunities the pandemic generated, focusing on aspects of what we have described as digital transformation and the expansion of opportunities for historically underserved groups of students.
"This whole pandemic…I think it's created a lot of great opportunities…. Basically, it's kind of like a forced technological evolution that we've had to partake in…how to adapt to technologies that we may not have been using before such as Zoom…. It's been challenging to kind of adapt and figure those out on the go. I really thought [it's] been refreshing. It's been such a great opportunity for so many that might not have had that opportunity beforehand, to obtain a higher education or to pursue goals that they may not have been able to pursue previously because we were kind of stuck in our ways. So I mean it's been super challenging and it's been obviously difficult to adapt and overcome and evolve to a lot of these changes, but I really feel like a lot of great things will come out of it as well."
This optimism is supported by recent survey data. In a 2021 EDUCAUSE QuickPoll, 71% of respondents indicated that they were either already engaged in digital transformation at their institutions or were in the process of developing a digital transformation strategy. This is an increase from 45% of respondents who answered this way in 2019, indicating that pandemic conditions may have expedited growth in this area.
Read more about how navigating the pandemic has accelerated many institutions' transformative journeys, and assess your own institution's Dx journey, in our How Dx Powers the Post-Pandemic Institution Showcase.
Students have plentiful ideas for action items. The insights provided by the CSU students who participated in these focus groups led to some suggestions for future practice. In fact, some of the best ideas came directly from the participants themselves. If these ideas don't work well in your setting, consider holding a focus group with your own students to see what they come up with.
- Free or discounted software: "Maybe give the students free access to software, such as Microsoft Word or other programs like Adobe Photoshop."
- Multiple monitors or large screens: "Two monitors would be really helpful just because you need a lot of tabs open in order to complete the assignments."
- Digital devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones: "Wouldn't it be fantastic if the universities could provide brand new laptops and smartphones?" " Every student should have a tablet or something."
- Assistive devices such as blue light filters to reduce screen fatigue: "We used to get headaches and our eyes would get really bothered by the monitor…. I know that someone was talking about glasses that would help."
- Space to study, connect to the internet, and print course materials: "I also think that more study spaces should be open." "Not having access to a printer was really rough."
- Multiple options for multimedia assignments (e.g., slides, videos, podcasts): "I thought that was great to add that extra layer of options for students to be creative in their own way in their own chosen platform to finish assignments."
- Blended (remote and in-person) learning: "There were some positives…. So I think perhaps that, for instance, they can somehow combine…Zoom and in-person."
- Financial support and maintenance programs for technology: "A grant… [for] electronic kind of stuff, so if your charger breaks or you need a program or some kind of service online, you can use that money to pay for it." "Maybe some sort of repair program for hardware so we don't have to just trash it [or] buy something brand new. That would be great to just be able to fix our stuff so we can continue working with it."
Digital Transformation at CSU
Learn more about the new CSUCCESS (California State University Connectivity Contributing to Equity and Student Success) program, one way the CSU is improving tech equity.
Fall 2021 kickoff with eight participating campuses.
iPad Air, Apple Pencil, and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio for all incoming first-year and new transfer students who register to participate in the initiative.
Students keep iPad bundle for the entirety of their undergraduate experience at the CSU.
CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro says of the program, "I am confident that it will be a game-changer in terms of student success, and I look forward to future phases, and the day—coming soon—when technology will be an essential and invaluable tool, and not a barrier, for every CSU student."
Thank you to all of the individuals who made this work possible. First and foremost, thank you to the student participants who shared their time and experiences with our research team. Second, we appreciate the collaboration of our colleagues from the CSU who aided in research development and dissemination:
- Kate Miffitt, Director for Innovation, California State University
- Maureen Guarcello, Research, Analytics, and Communications Specialist, San Diego State
- Helen Heinrich, Interim Associate Vice President of Academic Technology, CSUN
- Chris Hernandez, Senior Research Analyst, Fresno State
- Mary Virnoche, Professor of Sociology, Humboldt State
- Matt Zivot, Interim Director, Fresno State
A number of past and present EDUCUASE colleagues collaborated in this effort. Dana Gierdowski and D. Christopher Brooks helped with research development and data collection. Kate Roesch created the data visualizations in the report. We appreciate the careful review and insightful comments provided by Mark McCormack, Ben Shulman, and Gregory Dobbin. Last but certainly not least, thank you to Sophie White, Connie Ferger, and the rest of the marketing team for helping us elevate the student voice in this important message.
Appendix: Focus Group Questions
- Can you tell us about the primary place where you've had to do your academic work during the pandemic? Have you been on campus? At home? A little of both?
- Can you tell us about a time when you experienced an issue with connectivity or internet access that interfered with the work you were trying to do for school? How often do you think this has happened?
- If you've experienced internet issues when trying to do your school work, how did you troubleshoot or handle that problem? What steps did you take?
- How well did your solution work? Were you able to get your task accomplished (e.g. attending class online, uploading an assignment)?
- How did this experience make you feel? Did it have any impact on your feelings about being a student or being in school?
- Was seeking assistance from your campus' IT support / help desk an option for you?
- Why did you choose / not choose to seek help from your school's IT support / help desk?
- Have any of you used the campus IT support / help desk in the past? What was that experience like? Were they able to help you with your problem?
- How could your school help you with internet connection problems you've had when you've had to attend/do your academic work remotely/online? Is there / was there any kind of support they could provide that would help you as a student?
- Can you tell us about a time when you've had trouble with accessing/using any computer software/hardware required for your courses?
- What has your experience been like using your personal device (laptop, desktop, tablet, phone) to get your academic work done? What, if any, issues have you had with a device?
- If you have struggled with a device issue, how did you work through your problem? What did you do? Where did you go for help?
- Is there / was there any kind of device support your school could provide that would help you as a student?
- What has been the greatest challenge you've faced as a student in terms of technology during the pandemic?
- What would students choose if there were no constraints? What devices would they prefer learning experiences were designed for?
More Student Study Resources
Access other resources on the Student Experiences with Technology during the Pandemic research hub.
© 2021 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.
Jenay Robert. California State University Students' Experiences with Connectivity and Technology in the Pandemic. Research report. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, November 2021.