Student Experiences with Connectivity and Technology in the Pandemic

Introduction

For the past 18 years, EDUCAUSE Research has gathered data on the experiences and attitudes of undergraduate students with information technology (IT) at their respective institutions, making it one of the largest and longest-running data-collection efforts of its kind. Historically, we have published an annual, landscape view of our findings, covering a wide range of topics related to student technology experiences, use, and attitudes. However, as most institutions pivoted to remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020, we also pivoted to conduct a special fall 2020 study to gain insights on the student experience during what has been an exceptional time of disruption. In this report, we share results related to experiences, issues, and pain points students had with connectivity and technology—specifically internet and device access—as they did their academic work in 2020.

For the fall 2020 study, 9,499 students from 58 institutions participated in the research. The quantitative findings in this report were developed using the 8,392 responses from 54 US institutions.

IT units in higher education are the primary audience for this report, but the findings and resources it offers can be used by multiple organizations and individuals across campuses at every type of institution. This report makes generalized statements about the findings based on the large number of survey respondents. Applying these findings, however, is an institutionally specific undertaking. The priorities, strategic vision, student populations, infrastructure, and location of an institution will inevitably affect the meaning and use of these findings in a local context. We hope the findings are helpful to higher education IT professionals as they navigate the difficulties produced by the pandemic and plan their post-pandemic future.

Key Findings

  • Many students struggle with reliable internet access, but those with unstable housing situations struggle the most. In addition, almost half of students who live on campus have connection issues. Institutionally provided mobile hotspots are especially helpful to students in resolving connectivity issues.
  • Students have limited options away from home for an internet connection, and even then they may need to get creative. Some students go to great lengths in search of a stable Wi-Fi connection, while others don't have the option to go elsewhere and must do without if their service is disrupted.
  • Nearly all students have access to a reliable device (primarily a laptop) for school, but not all devices can handle the demands of remote learning. The device-related problem that students said they experienced most often was missing a remote class session or a deadline. Reasons included that they did not have access to their primary computing device, that their primary device wouldn't work, or that their device was not equipped to perform a task that was needed for a class.
  • Most students prefer to troubleshoot device issues themselves instead of tapping their institution's technology support services for assistance. Common reasons given were that they didn't know support was available at their institution, that they didn't know how to find help, and that it was faster to handle such problems themselves.

Steps Institutional Leaders Can Take

Consider the following steps as you continue to respond to the most immediate needs of students and plan for a post-pandemic future.

  • Provide more support for reliable internet access. Allocate funds for the procurement of mobile hotspots for individual student use, and provide safe spaces on campus where students can access the internet when they need it. Increase the number of access points in public campus spaces and student housing, and add directional antennas to boost signals. Expand financial aid packages to include subsidies for adding or boosting at-home internet access for students who need it.
  • Expand investments in device-lending initiatives. Allocate funding for laptop and/or tablet loan and rental programs to assist students who need access to devices that can support the work required for their courses. EDUCAUSE data showed that before the pandemic, the number of devices available for checkout or rental was extremely low. Since access to computers on campus has been compromised to protect public health, institutions would do well to scale up their loan programs to give students access to well equipped, up-to-date devices.
  • Encourage faculty to presume students are under-connected.1 Train faculty on asynchronous, low-bandwidth pedagogical approaches, such as recording lectures and content, so that students have the added flexibility that can accommodate the internet access issues that so many experience as they work and learn from home.
  • Increase campus technology support services for device and internet connectivity, and promote these services widely. Expand help desk hours so that students have wider access to support, especially during late nights and on weekends. Contracting with managed service providers2 to provide 24/7 support could offer capacity solutions for smaller IT units and those operating on reduced budgets. To increase student awareness, promote services via numerous channels, including through campus email, social media, advisors, faculty, and the learning management system (LMS). Display support info prominently on IT websites and in course LMS sites, and ask instructors to include this info in course syllabi.

More Student Study Resources

Access the full report about students and information technology, along with related resources, on the research hub.

© 2021 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Citation for this work
Dana C. Gierdowski. Student Experiences with Connectivity and Technology in the Pandemic. Research report. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, April 2021.

Notes

  1. Vikki Katz, "How Do We Make Remote Learning Better? Listen to the Students," Medium, August 20, 2020.

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  2. Wylie Wong, "Why Are Managed Service Providers Important For Higher Education?" EdTech, February 16, 2021.

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