Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication for educators, in a recent issue featured comments and observations of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College faculty members Dr. Roy Silver and Theresa Osborne on the lack of Internet access for students living in rural areas of the country. The piece, by staff writer Sara Grossman, focused on the problem of poor Internet service and how it can hinder the success of many students.
Grossmab noted that in this day of high-speed Internet access and how it is linked to those seeking a college education, many living in remote areas are hindered in their pursuit of a college degree. She said some 19 million Americans lack access to high-speed Internet service, with a significant access gap between residents of urban and rural areas.
A report by the Federal Communications Commission shows that while only 1.8 percent of urban residents lacked access to broadband, nearly 24 percent of rural Americans live where high-speed access is unavailable.
“In an era when education increasingly takes place online, broadband Internet access is a basic necessity for students,” says Tom Koutsky, chief policy council at Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization that works to expand such access in the United States. “Students today are minimally expected to perform research and submit assignments online, and they need reliable, fast Internet access to do so,” he said.
SKCTC’s Silver and Osborne made comments for the article from experience dealing with students who either have poor or no access to the Internet. Both said a lack of Internet access can get in the way of learning for their students.
In the article in the Chronicle, Silver said many of his sociology students don’t have access to the web. He estimates that about 20 percent use dial-up connections, while another 20 percent don’t have connections at all. With few coffee shops or local restaurants offering free Internet access, he says, many of his students come early or stay late on campus to use the computing services provided by SKCTC. He recalled a student who had to take courses online to complete her degree. She would start to download her assignment on her home computer, leave to do laundry, and then come back to see whether the download was complete. “If you don’t have a high-speed connection, Silver said, “the World Wide Web is turned into the world-wide wait.”
Osborne, an instructor of Appalachian and folk studies, has taught students who come to class largely unfamiliar with the Internet. She regularly meets with students individually to show them how to log into Blackboard, the college’s learning-management system, or use the library’s search engine. She estimates that about 10 to 25 percent of her students lack Internet at home.
The federal government recognizes the economic importance of getting more Americans online. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $250 million to increase broadband use among Americans who have not yet adopted the technology. The FCC has also made moves to expand broadband in rural areas. Two years ago, the FCC announced its Connect America Fund, aimed at making sure all households have access to a basic level of broadband service. The $4.5 billion fund has so far invested $115 million to bring service to nearly 400,000 Americans and another $300 million for mobile broadband on rural roads that are now unserved.