How the Technology Gap in Hardware, Software and Broadband Access Affects Engineering Students
Jennifer Seaton posted on October 01, 2020 |
Reliance on online education due to COVID-19 is highlighting the digital divide between students.
(Stock image.)
(Stock image.)

Fall has arrived and that means that students are going back to school. For many post-secondary students, their new normal is online courses and virtual campus activities. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, educators have been turning to online education to grapple with country-wide school closures.

One outcome of the increased reliance on online education is that it is highlighting the growing digital divide among students. Even before COVID-19, there was a push for schools, including universities, to embrace digital learning and an increase in online homework assignments. This shift to digital has created a “homework gap” among secondary and post-secondary students, because those without regular access to hardware and broadband connection are unable to access resources or complete their assignments.

The homework gap has significant implications for education at both the secondary and post-secondary level, because it means some students are falling behind their peers due to lack of access to technology. Almost 60 percent of students said that they require internet access at home to complete their homework. Roughly one in five students are unable to complete their homework because they lack the technological support.

The homework gap affects low income students in particular. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that almost half of students from households with an income below $30,000 do not own their own computer.  Without their own hardware, these students rely on campus facilities such as computer labs and libraries in order to access resources and work on assignments.

Smartphones are one technology playing a role in bridging the technology gap. Forty-three percent of low-income households reported students who have been completing homework on their smartphones since the school closures at the beginning of the year. However, smartphones are not ideal tools for university courses, particularly engineering courses, which often require access to specialized hardware and software that cannot be accessed through a smartphone.

Engineering students who don’t own this software typically access the necessary programs in a computer lab on campus, but in the face of potential or repeated campus closures, this becomes an unreliable option. One solution to this problem has been to set up remote PCs on campus. For example, Northwestern University has set up 50 remote desktops, which give students remote access to software normally accessed via lab computers. The remote access works through a browser and gives students access to all the software programs normally available on a campus computer.

However, online courses and remote access to software are still dependent on having internet access, which is an issue for many Americans. The Pew Research Center survey also found that 44 percent of low-income households do not have broadband services at home. The added financial burdens of COVID-19, which has seen high unemployment overall and a lack of the summertime work that students often rely on to pay for their education, are exacerbating this technological divide.

Nearly half of Americans said that someone in their household either lost their job or had a reduction in pay and about a quarter of those surveyed were concerned about being able to afford internet connection over the upcoming months.  For university students beginning the fall semester remotely from their own or a family home, no internet connection means they cannot attend lectures or access their assignments.

Universities are working to address their students’ lack of internet access in a variety of ways. For example, Western Governors University offers online access scholarships to students who cannot afford the cost of an internet connection. The scholarship covers the cost of internet installation, internet access and provides the student with a refurbished laptop.

Other universities are making the internet more accessible on campus outside of the computer labs. For example, although Georgia Northwestern Technical College (GNTC) had to close their computer labs, they expanded their wireless internet services across the campus to ensure that students could access the internet from any location. GNTC students can now access reliable bandwidth from parking lots and open areas where students can follow social distancing measures.

The University of South Carolina (UofSC) similarly upgraded their internet services across their campus. Although UofSC will still depend on online course delivery for many of their classes this fall, their residence halls will be open. To enable the students living in residence to attend classes virtually, UofSC substantially upgraded the network access in the residence buildings. Previously, the entire campus had 4,052 network access points; after the upgrade, a residence alone has 4,700 network access points. This new wireless infrastructure allows for students to perform the data-heavy activities required for online learning, such as video streaming lectures and accessing software and other enhanced learning tools, from their dorm rooms.

The technology gap is not only an economic divide for students; there is also a racial component. Over half of the Hispanic respondents surveyed in the Pew report were concerned that they will not be able to afford a broadband internet connection in the upcoming months. In comparison, 36 percent of black Americans and 21 percent of white Americans surveyed shared these concerns.

(Graph courtesy of Pew Research Center.)
(Graph courtesy of Pew Research Center.)

This racial division is particularly important when considering Engineering students. Minorities, including African Americans, Latinos, and Indigenous people are already underrepresented in engineering education and the workforce. The digital technology gap threatens to add yet another barrier to ethnic minorities entering the field of engineering.

There are a number of programs being developed to help minority student overcome the barrier to entering STEM fields. NASA, for example, administers the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP). This program aims to support minority serving universities’ efforts to recruit and retain students interested in pursuing an education in STEM. In particular, MUREP invests in student internships and fellowships for student in NASA centers and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These opportunities give students exposure to engineering and technology career paths and helps them to develop the necessary skill to pursue those careers.

More recently, U.S. Representative Charlie Crist helped secure a one-million-dollar grant for St. Petersburg College’s Tampa Bay Bridge to Baccalaureate Alliance (TB-B2B) program. The TB-B2B program focuses on supporting under-represented communities in STEM degrees by funding activities that help students make peer connections, establish mentorships and pursue professional development. The purpose of these activities is to increase student recruitment and retention through peer support.

An important step in increasing minority representation in engineering is to ensure students have access to mentors in their program or field of study. This is particularly important as classes move online. Online learning can feel isolating for many students, which can decrease student engagement in university both socially and academically. Peer mentorship can off-set feeling of loneliness and help students engage in campus life.

The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering recommends early interventions to engage children in Engineering. They offer three steps for parents to engage children in STEM fields:

  1. Be role models
  2. Make STEM relatable with fun projects
  3. Encourage children to participate in after-school programs

Due to social distancing measures, there are limited after-school program options. Online Maker Communities could be a good option for parents to find projects to work on with their children.

Make: Projects, for example, has a huge resource of low-cost projects that could make a great after-school project. There are many different projects that span the STEM fields. For example, the project Creative Cardboard Construction, explores how to introduce children to engineering concepts and methods by constructing structures out of cardboard.

Full disclosure: Make: Projects, mentioned in this article, is a joint venture of and Make:Community. 

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