Home Internet Access
Mariana is finishing her senior year and is on track to get a bachelor's degree in nursing. She is slightly older than the students in her classes who live on campus and is the first one in her family to attend college. She balances her full-time study with working 20 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant. Mariana could not have attended her local public university without the support of her husband, Gabriel, who cares for their 3-year-old daughter when she is on campus. Although she is busy with work and family, she pays extra for high-speed internet at home to make it easier to complete her online coursework. Before and after family dinners, using a laptop she shares with her husband, she does research, emails her instructor, and connects with a classmate about an assignment. She likes the convenience of online courses but still likes to engage with her nursing instructors face-to-face in the classroom, so she takes blended classes whenever they are offered. Life is busy, but she feels excited about completing her degree.
Mariana's story reflects what we found out about the characteristics of commuter students this year. As with many off-campus students, her ability to work, go to school, and attend to her family reflects a likely decreased distinction between work, leisure, and academic domains, so home connectivity is critical. Since commuter students told us they spend about the same number of hours per day engaging in online research/ homework as their on-campus peers, reliable home networks are necessary for this student population to facilitate seamless access to academic resources and student tasks (e.g., registration), regardless of location. Assessing these students' home internet connections can provide insight into the quality of noninstitutional networks used by this large group of students.
Nearly three-quarters (72%) of commuter students rated their internet connection at their home/off-campus residence either good or excellent; only 2% reported having no internet access at home.1 With the majority of off-campus students giving positive ratings of connectivity in their homes, what are these students' learning environment preferences? As one might expect, slightly more commuter students than on-campus students told us they prefer online or blended learning environments. In a similar vein, fewer off-campus students than on-campus students reported preferring mostly or completely face-to-face courses. However, there were still high percentages of commuter students who said they prefer completely or mostly face-to-face learning environments (see figure 7).
Several factors might help explain why large numbers of commuter students still value in-class experiences. The face-to-face learning environment may be particularly important to commuter students because a larger portion of off-campus students are first-generation college students and may seek more interaction with their instructors in the classroom. Additionally, commuter students' limited or shared access to technology may explain why a majority said they prefer face-to-face learning environments—these students may be sharing access to home computers with family members for online academic work,2 and primarily face-to-face learning environments may allow them to sidestep some of the challenges of using technology at home, regardless of their ratings of home connectivity.
On the other hand, the slightly higher preferences for online and blended learning environments among commuter students compared to on-campus students might reflect how online learning can benefit those who need to accommodate work schedules and family responsibilities. Twenty-nine percent of students with dependents, as well as 24% of those who identified as being married or in a domestic partnership, said they prefer mostly or completely online learning environments. Thirteen percent of students who live off campus and reported working 20 or more hours per week (excluding work study) said they would prefer taking online-only courses. These findings suggest that commuter students frequently need added flexibility and convenience in their academic work.3
Taken together, these findings suggest that for commuter students, there might be a tension between their desire for in-class experiences and a need to attend to additional, nonacademic responsibilities. In a perfect world, off-campus students might prefer to sit in class with peers, but that might not be feasible in the real world. Consequently, commuter students need access to consistent and strong off-campus networks.
Of particular concern for commuter students (if not all students) is a recent FCC ruling that could allow network providers to place internet sites in a "slow lane" of connectivity and charge customers higher rates for fast access to certain websites. This fight over net neutrality remains an ongoing legislative battle.4 The FCC's decision has been challenged by higher education and library communities, which view the overturning of net neutrality as jeopardizing an open internet, which is now "mission critical" to colleges, universities, and libraries.5 If the FCC's decision is implemented, that could further impact students' ability to engage in online or blended learning or conduct research, particularly for economically disadvantaged students with multiple responsibilities who need the flexibility and convenience of online learning and research from their homes.
What can institutions do to mitigate some of the potential ramifications of a complete overturning of net neutrality? We recommend that IT units do the following:
- Ensure campus networks are frictionless and ubiquitous. For commuter students with poor or no connectivity and work and family responsibilities, the campus network may be their sole option for quality connectivity that enables them to take advantage of the convenience and flexibility of the blended learning environment.
- Increase awareness of off-campus students' learning environment preferences, which at face value are not intuitive (i.e., high percentages of commuter students still prefer face-to-face classes).
- Prioritize communicating the benefits of online or blended learning to the off-campus student population—not only the outcomes for student success but also how online and blended learning can accommodate students' family lives, work, and commuting.
- Help off-campus students determine the best learning environment for their learning preferences and academic needs so that they can make informed decisions on how, when, why, and to what extent they engage in online or blended learning.
- Communicate to commuter students the convenience of using Wi-Fi at their local public libraries, in case they can't make it to campus but still need access to a reliable network.
Commuter students need to know about the flexibility and the academic benefits that online or blended learning can offer them, including the inherent expectations and workload of an online course. Without knowledge of the demands and expectations of online or blended learning or how it can contribute to their academic success, commuter students' valuable time may be relegated to commuting, not degree completion.
Twelve percent of off-campus students reported "neutral" experiences with their home connectivity. Off-campus students without home internet connectivity (711, or 2% of total commuter students) still have access to the workhorse devices for students at percentages marginally lower than the general student population. Smartphones were the device to which they had the most access (92%), followed by laptops (82%), tablets (33%), desktops (29%), and hybrids (8%). Sixty-seven percent of commuter students without a home internet connection reported that they prefer a learning environment that is all or mostly face-to-face (compared to 70% among all students).↩︎
Maura Smale and Mariana Regalado, "Commuter Students Using Technology," EDUCAUSE Review, September 15, 2014.↩︎
Even commuter students who rated their internet connections as poor or fair had preferences for blended learning environments similar to those of commuter students who rated their connections as good or excellent.↩︎
Klint Finley, "FCC Plan to Kill Net Neutrality Rules Could Hurt Students," Wired, December 12, 2017. The possibility remains that the FCC's repeal of net neutrality could be overturned or that state legislation could ensure continued net neutrality. See, for example, Klint Finley, "The FCC's Net Neutrality Rules Are Dead, But the Fight Isn't," Wired, June 11. 2018.↩︎
EDUCAUSE joined with 19 other higher education and library groups, including the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), and the American Library Association (ALA), to file an amicus brief in support of reversing the FCC's net neutrality repeal and restoring its 2015 rules. For more information, see Jarret Cummings, "EDUCAUSE Joins Net Neutrality Amicus Brief," EDUCAUSE Review, August 29, 2018.↩︎