The disconnected: COVID-19 and disparities in access to quality broadband for higher education students
International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18, Article number: 26 (2021)
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many higher education institutions (HEIs) across the world to cancel face-to-face teaching, close campus facilities, and displace staff and students to work and learn from home. Given the persistent nature of the pandemic, many HEIs have continued to deliver courses online and/or use a blended learning approach. However, there are concerns around differences in student access to digital learning resources while at home, including high quality broadband connectivity. This is important, since variation in connectivity may impact the type of online/blended model that faculty can deliver or constrain student engagement with online content. In this context, this paper combines national data on the domiciles of students enrolled in Irish HEIs with detailed spatial data on broadband coverage to estimate the number of higher education students ‘at risk’ of poor access to high quality internet connectivity. Overall it finds that one-in-six students come from areas with poor broadband coverage, with large disparities by geography and by HEI. It also finds that students from the poorest broadband coverage areas are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. As a result, this paper recommends that HEIs use their detailed registration data to help identify and support at-risk students. In particular, the results suggest that some HEIs may need to prioritise access to campus facilities and services to less well-off students living in poor broadband coverage areas.