The pandemic has pushed students into online learning, but many lack access to the broadband needed to succeed | News

As the pandemic swept through rural America, millions of people without reliable internet access at home were suddenly unable to keep up with work and school, forcing people to get creative.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, about a quarter of the country’s rural population, or about 14.5 million people, do not have access to broadband.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drove people out of schools and workplaces, it meant millions were left out in the cold, forcing some LSU students to do their homework in parking lots at any facility with free Wi-Fi.

This phenomenon has a considerable impact on Louisiana, where at least 400,000 households do not have access to broadband.

While LSU’s main location in Baton Rouge, an urban campus, may not experience the pinch of inadequate broadband access to the same degree as more rural areas, other LSU campuses do. LSU Eunice, located in a town of 10,000 in the rural parishes of Acadia and St. Landry, has had a harder time adjusting to online learning.

Nancee Sorenson, Chancellor of LSU Eunice, deals daily with the realities of the rural broadband crisis.

“The topic of rural broadband is very close to my heart, because of the negative impact it has on our students, on our employees, and on the citizens of these very rural communities,” Sorenson said.

Soren said around a fifth of students at the school had connectivity issues.

In many cases, students were unable to use online proctoring tools like ProcturU, forcing them to pay multiple times to take an exam. In other cases, students had to drive to campus to do their homework in the parking lot.

Sorenson said the school solved the problem by committing $2 million to federal pandemic relief to address connectivity issues for students and faculty.

Documents provided to The Reveille by Sorenson show the school spent $41,306 on internet services and $291,298 on hardware for students, faculty and staff, ranging from laptops and iPads to internet hotspots .

Unfortunately, hotspots can’t do much in a rural area.

“If you don’t have connectivity to begin with, it doesn’t help you to be able to work from home or study from home,” Sorenson said.

This investment has helped bridge the digital divide at a school where up to 40% of lessons are regularly delivered online. But Sorenson said that wasn’t enough. She said what the community really needs is fiber optic cable that brings broadband access to an area.

“It’s just fundamental to economic and workforce development to have great broadband connectivity,” Sorenson said.

The newly created Office of Broadband and Connectivity Development, part of the Division of Administration, is tasked with bridging the digital divide in Louisiana, both in terms of access and digital literacy.

Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of the office, also known as ConnectLA, said the pandemic has brought an existing problem to light.

“I think what we learned during the pandemic was that the amount of internet needed to even facilitate an online educational platform was insufficient,” Iyengar said. “When we say insufficient, we are talking about data transmission speeds, we are talking about quality.”

Iyengar said that while some were having problems due to a complete lack of access, others were suffering from inadequate internet quality.

“What we’ve learned during the pandemic is that online learning has affected everyone badly, but at different stages, but it was particularly acute for people who didn’t have it,” Iyengar said. . “And when you didn’t have it, you suddenly saw people parking at McDonald’s or going through their local libraries trying to get basic broadband.”

One of the ways ConnectLA solved this problem was by promoting the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which provided $50 a month to help people pay their broadband bill.

Working with the Board of Regents, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and other stakeholders, they have enrolled 215,000 households in the program.

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