More than one in five community college students don’t have reliable access to a computer or laptop, according to a 2019 survey. Even many of those who can access a device report struggling with spotty or limited internet access. While alarming on any day, these stats are especially troubling in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has forced a growing number of community colleges to transition to remote instruction. As you navigate this dramatic transition, here are four guidelines to keep top of mind:
1. Find out who has Internet and device access, and who doesn’t
In order to design and deliver a remote course that meets the needs of your students, you must first understand exactly what those needs are, and where limitations may exist.
Wayne State University developed a Student Technology Access Survey Guide that instructors can adapt and distribute in order to pinpoint students’ particular technological needs.
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If creating your own survey from scratch, make sure to ask students these key questions:
- Do you have access to: laptop, desktop, tablet, smartphone?
- Do you have access to a microphone and webcam?
- Do you have access to WiFi?
- How reliable is your connection?
- Do you use cell phone data to access internet at home?
You can duplicate Wayne State’s mobile-friendly survey in Microsoft Forms, and distribute the link via student email and your LMS course page.
2. Take simple steps to be mobile-friendly
In the event that students don’t have reliable access to laptop or desktop computers—particularly if campus and community libraries are closed—make sure that all content and course materials are smartphone-friendly by following these tips:
- Convert other file types (e.g., PPT, Word Doc) to PDFs, which are easier to open on mobile devices
- For video uploads, instead of hosting long synchronous sessions, upload short (5-10 minute) lecture videos onto platforms that students likely already have access to, like YouTube, using private or URL-restricted settings
- Choose text-based materials with few large graphics, if possible
3. Minimize downloads for those with data restrictions
Many students may have unreliable WiFi access, or limited data plans that can make downloading and accessing course content difficult.
To accommodate varying data accessibility among students, limit downloading requirements by placing materials on web platforms such as your institution’s LMS or Google Slides, Sheets, and Drive. This allows students to access and interact with the materials online, which requires less data than downloading to their devices. When downloading of materials is necessary, minimize file size by limiting high-resolution images and extraneous pages, and compressing large video or document files using free online tools.
4. No matter the delivery method, treat students with empathy
Everyone is experiencing the mental, emotional, and physical strain of the ongoing public health emergency. For students who have limited access to basic technology and virtual resources, that strain is compounded. That’s why its imperative that faculty and college leaders lead with empathy when assisting students with the transition to remote instruction. University of Mary Washington lecturer Jesse Stommel shared his message to his students, which communicates support, flexibility, and reassurance during a period of great uncertainty:
I’m here to support you however I can. Take care of yourself and your family first. Our class should not be your priority. Everything about this class is flexible. Whatever happens, we will work it out.
Embedding messages such as these within your communication with students reduces some of the psychological stress associated with the transition, so that you can address some of the physical barriers.