Education Disconnection

SOMETIMES, GETTING ACCESS to a good education is about getting access to a good Internet connection.

I spent my freshmen year at a mid-sized college known mostly for is education, nursing, and theatre programs. It’s in one of those mostly rural sorts of towns five minutes away from farms, ranches, and the occasional petroleum venture, that upon recognizing the demographic shift to the cities, built a college for the surrounding communities with the hope that it would diversify the economy and slow down the youth flight.

Even before my parents left me in my dorm to fend for myself, I asked for the Wi-Fi network and password. After receiving the needed information, I waited anxiously for the unlimited Internet access to pour in. Alas, my dreams collided with technical reality. The network failed. I tried every browser I had: Safari, Firefox, Chrome. Nothing worked. And I wasn’t the only one facing the issue.

Students all over my campus resorted to using Ethernet cables or restricted personal routers. I got a job working for the university, but struggled to use the Internet for my work, as students, employees and faculty were all online at the same time I was. (To be fair, this is college, and most young adults are online all of the time.) Most of the time, I had to resort to using my phone, instead of a computer. In the classroom, we made do as much as possible with PowerPoint presentations, DVDs, white boards and other offline applications. If professors needed to use the Internet, students were almost always guaranteed a wait.

This was 2014. Three quarters of the world had some kind of Internet connection. Because of America’s widely dispersed population and infrastructure, colleges in these smaller, rural towns still often have poor broadband access. My school was located about one and a half hours away from the nearest metropolis. Most towns around were vast expanses of land with hardly a soul to be found.

With all the things going on in the world, why should we care about slow Internet access for rural schools? After all, can’t we function without it? Not anymore. From my experience, robust Internet access is key to higher education in a technologically advanced country. Schools are integrating their assignments and workflow through Google Apps. Moodle, an open-source learning platform is in widespread use. I was on Blackboard, a virtual learning environment, at least ten times per day to check my grades and assignments, and when I had decent Internet access, would complete tests and quizzes on it, rather than take them in the class.

Keith Fowlkes, director of IT services at Centre College, points out, “With applications such as Skype, Netflix, and Xbox, our bandwidth situation was bad enough. But, now with cable and satellite content providers piling into the mix with their mobile apps, how do we keep up with demand?”

What’s the solution? One idea could be to mimic North Carolina’s method, which was funded from the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement: have all 16 universities, K-12 schools and research institutions attached to one broadband connector, looping around the entire state. Today, North Carolina’s students have private and advanced Internet access, and rarely run into traffic problems on a network so robust it has decades’ worth of dark fiber built in.

Without that kind of cash laying around, where does that money come from to build an expensive terrestrial broadband network — alumni, raising student fees, government loans, or fundraising? Something better may come along. Wireless is making strides. But, in the meantime, there just isn’t enough bandwidth.

As bad as my college’s Internet access is, it has a liberal arts focus, and so probably doesn’t need to be as capable as that found in schools that primarily focus on technology. Theoretically, tech schools could reach out for support from the deep-pocketed tech companies that recruit from those schools. Can liberal arts colleges follow the same path? |||||


Amy Yoelin is a freelance writer.