With the reopening of society on the horizon for many countries, discussion within higher education has turned to what the future may look like in the next academic year and beyond.
The unprecedented changes within the sector over the past year are well established, with the need now to examine which of these should have a lasting imprint. The most obvious is the delivery of online teaching, with most agreeing that some form of blended learning will be a prominent and permanent feature of higher education into the future.
Nonetheless, challenges remain for this to be undertaken at scale, with problems relating to access to technology for staff and students already widely discussed. However, a topic that has rarely featured in these discussions is the differences among individual higher education institutions (HEIs) in terms of their respective student populations’ access to digital learning resources and the issues arising from this.
For example, the feasibility of more online delivery for an HEI that draws a significant proportion of its student population from those who are more likely to live at home during college may differ considerably from the feasibility for one that draws students from more mobile, usually affluent, groups.
To get a better understanding of this issue, our recent research article “The disconnected: Covid-19 and disparities in broadband access for higher education students” estimated the number of students “at risk” of poor access to high-quality internet connectivity across HEIs in Ireland. Using national data on the domicile (home) area of students enrolled in each HEI, combined with detailed spatial data on broadband coverage, we found very different levels of student access to high-quality broadband at home for different HEIs.
For example, our estimates showed that only 3 per cent of students from one particular HEI came from poor broadband coverage areas, compared with 33 per cent of students enrolled at another. Furthermore, students from areas with the lowest levels of access to high-quality broadband tended to be more socio-economically disadvantaged.
Such disparities may relate not only to access to high-quality internet services but could also include significant gaps in access to appropriate equipment, such as a laptop or desktop computer, and to a suitable home environment in which to learn or study. The digital literacy skills required to engage with online learning may also differ markedly across student groups.
The implications of such differences should be looked at from an HEI perspective as well as in terms of national policy. The most obvious suggestion is that HEIs use data at the level of the institution, and not the national level, to analyse both the student and academic view of the advantages and obstacles experienced with online learning in the past year before making longer-term strategic decisions.
Given the disparities evidenced in our research, HEIs could specifically target students from rural areas and/or those receiving financial aid to canvass their views. They may find that these students had a very different experience from that presented at the national level. Second, and relatedly, we suggested in our research that HEIs need to consider the specific characteristics of their student population in terms of socio-economic background, geography and the level of campus access when deciding upon the scale and scope of online offerings in the future. A teaching and learning strategy based upon sophisticated and best-practice online delivery approaches from the teaching side will be of limited use if the relevant student population doesn’t have the resources to engage effectively with online content.
In terms of national policy, if a blended or more online approach is to be adopted at scale in the coming years across the sector, then the variation in student experience that may occur due to differences in access to resources such as high-quality broadband needs to be fully thought through.
Without the necessary supports or policies in place, HEIs with student populations that have better access to technology will be able to offer a very different online experience − and thus educational experience − compared with HEIs with student populations that have fewer resources.
One practical way in which governments and HEIs could work together to mitigate some of these issues is to expand education-specific wi-fi services such as eduroam outside campus locations. An example of this is the “eduroam everywhere” scheme in Ireland. More specifically, our research highlights the way in which the detailed enrolment data available to HEIs can help identify the optimal location of such services.
Such a joined-up use of data and targeted investment would benefit both students and HEIs in the short term and help create a more level playing field for future online approaches across different HEIs.
Without such considerations, it’s likely that already well-resourced HEIs will accrue the benefits of this changing landscape, exacerbating existing financial inequities and social stratification issues within the sector.
Darragh Flannery is a lecturer in the department of economics at the University of Limerick in the Republic of Ireland.
Dónal Palcic is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Limerick.
John Cullinan is a senior lecturer in economics at the National University of Ireland Galway in the Republic of Ireland.