Eight months ago, isolation and quarantine entered the mainstream vernacular. Higher education professionals previously used isolated to describe students who did not have a support network or did not participate in campus events. Never before has higher education had to incorporate numerous isolated and quarantined students into daily learning. Luckily, it is the year 2020. Broadband internet, video chat, and various online tools are available to keep students connected. Nevertheless, as the months go on, isolation and quarantine continue to manifest problems. Not only do students continue to suffer from mental health issues, but also, it is clear that the digital divide between the connected and disconnected has become even more significant.
The emergence of web applications in 2005 cemented the importance of broadband access to users. Applications used daily without thought, such as Canvas, Blackboard, and university databases, would not be possible with broadband internet. Internet access has become such an essential part of our lives that in July 2016, the United Nations issued a resolution to make internet access a human right (Sandle, 2016). Even though the United States has made great strides to ensure all citizens have access to broadband internet, there are still many infrastructure gaps. In April of this year, the Federal Communications Commission reported that 22.3% of rural Americans still do not have adequate access to broadband internet (2020, pg. 18). Many of the students our institutions serve may be impacted.
Higher Education institutions can help bridge the internet access gap by opening access to high-speed internet. Creating guest wifi networks will help the local community stay connected. If students must return home; and, an institution is in town, students can utilize the guest network to complete coursework. Guest networks also benefit K-12 students who must attend school virtually. Ask IT if the university can offer guest wifi access. If not, what are the barriers preventing the institution from offering this type of wireless access? At this time, there may be more advantages than disadvantages. Additionally, IT can always turn off the service if it is no longer needed.
Besides internet access, students who must complete coursework online face several hurdles their in-person peers do not. If students access services via teleconferencing, they may not have appropriate technology such as webcams, microphones, or even a fast-enough computer to display a smooth picture. Additionally, if students must attend class virtually and their professors require video cameras, socioeconomic disparities may be revealed to others.
Whenever video conferencing is required, staff should make every effort to reduce uncomfortable situations. One way to alleviate discomfort is to create virtual spaces. Students are accustomed to using avatars to represent their digital selves. Consider creating an environment that showcases Bitmojis or a digital reflection of students. While traditionally used for K-12 education, teachers have had great success setting up Bitmoji classrooms, which are digital manifestations of physical, on-campus locations. For creative students who are good at Minecraft, host a virtual event where students re-create the union or a prominent campus location. Students who have ownership of their virtual creations are more likely to be engaged in those spaces.
For a generation that grew up on social media, multiplayer games, and the like, encouraging students to attend virtual events has been difficult. Fraternity & sorority life, student involvement, and residential life offices have struggled to engage students virtually. No one has yet found the magical formula. It comes down to this: in-person event blueprints do not translate well to the online environment. The game has changed. Practitioners must completely rework events to incorporate virtual engagement. Sitting through a Zoom presentation is not the answer. Consider incorporating gamification elements such as a scoreboard, digital badges, or instant gratification techniques. Allow students space to create their co-curricular journey. Integrate digital tracks for in-demand skills. The possibilities are endless; however, it will require agile thinking. McLeod and Fisch once suggested that 65% of students entering grade school will work in jobs that do not yet exist (2008). Perhaps it is on student affairs to create engagement methods that no one would have thought of 10 years ago.
McLeod & Fisch, (2008). Shift Happens. Retrieved from http://apolloideas.com/shifthappens
Federal Communications Commission. (2020, April 24). 2020 Broadband Deployment Report (Report No. FCC-20-50). Retrieved from https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-50A1.pdf
Sandle, T. (2016, July 22). UN thinks internet access is a human right. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/un-says-internet-access-is-a-human-right-2016-7