Pandemic exposes technology gap for higher education

Local colleges and universities had to scramble to meet the needs of students near and far.
Calvin University installed and expanded wireless internet throughout campus, particularly in residence halls, and even set up shop in the school’s art gallery. Courtesy Adrian Van Stee

Although local colleges and universities have been offering online classes for years, the pandemic revealed one common problem when it began over a year ago.

According to representatives from Grand Rapids Community College, Calvin University and Davenport University, access to technology was a major challenge when their students and faculty members were forced to quickly pivot to virtual learning.

David Murray, communications director for GRCC, said the college had to provide students with hundreds of loaner laptops, web cameras, headphones and portable Wi-Fi units.

“We extended Wi-Fi into the parking lot behind the administration building on the DeVos Campus and in the lot near the new GRCC Lakeshore Campus while it is undergoing renovations,” he said. “The college also formed a partnership with the Kent District Library to give students Wi-Fi access in branch parking lots.”

While some students at GRCC could use Wi-Fi to complete course work in different parking lots, Amy Miller, executive director for university communications and public relations for Davenport University, said officials were surprised by the lack of connection their students had to Wi-Fi and general technology when they returned home.

While students in the U.S. were struggling with internet access, Kevin den Dulk, associate provost for Calvin University, said they were worried about international students who make up about 15% of the student body.

Some of the international students were in their home countries like China, South Korea and Ghana during the height of the pandemic and were unable to return to the U.S. because some borders were closed.

“We were already looking at good, solid pedagogy for online teaching, so as soon as we recognized that we would have to offer some courses that would have to meet the needs of international students in different time zones, we were able to put together asynchronous courses that students would participate in by creating a list of top courses that many of these international students needed in their course rotation so that we could meet them where they were at,” said Rob Bobeldyk, assistant director for teaching and learning for Calvin information technology.

Den Dulk said initially it was feared firewalls established by the different countries would be a big challenge in sending international students their coursework, but that wasn’t much of an issue when compared to overall internet quality.

“We had to figure out how to get them the knowledge and access that they need in order to learn remotely, and for many of the students it was a challenge,” he said. “Some students didn’t necessarily have access to the best internet capacity. So, what that would mean when you are delivering a course and you are trying to do that remotely and you don’t have the best internet where you happen to be, then what we would do is try to accommodate that with how we designed the courses themselves so they don’t require a lot of bandwidth.”

One item that requires a lot of bandwidth and the right equipment for international students is the teaching platform Microsoft Teams. As a result, Calvin had to create alternative ways to get the course work to those students through email in smaller files.

In addition to Microsoft Teams, Brian Paige, associate vice president for IT and chief information officer at Calvin, said staff and faculty also decided to use another learning management system called Moodle to create an added option.

Back in Grand Rapids, Paige said they installed and expanded wireless internet throughout the campus, particularly in the residence halls.

There were 170 teaching and learning spaces at Calvin that were modified because of the pandemic to ensure that professors had the ability to deliver their coursework. Bobeldyk said some of those teaching and learning spaces will become permanent.

“One of the most fun places that we converted (into a teaching and learning space) was the university art gallery,” Paige said. “We converted that to a classroom, and I can’t think of a better metaphor for the liberal arts. Computer science professors teach some of their classes in the university art gallery. The students that are there sit socially distanced. Professors are also able to broadcast him or herself to remote students on a camera whether they are in the dorm or across the globe.”

As students are returning to campus and schools move forward, Murray said GRCC staff still are determining long-term plans on how to bridge the technological gap. For the fall semester, GRCC will continue to provide loaner laptops, web cameras, headphones and portable Wi-Fi units to its students.

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