Community Colleges | Feature

When Students Can't Compute

Online education promises learning opportunities for all, but too many community college students lack the tech skills--and the access--to take advantage of these resources. CT takes a closer look at the problem.

When Students Cannot Compute
Photo: iStock

A dozen years after Marc Prensky coined the term "digital native" in a 2001 article, his theory that today's students ("K through college") have a hardwired affinity for technology is looking far too simplistic. His argument is undercut by the realities of geography, socioeconomics, and--equally important--changing demographics in the student body itself.

Indeed, the traditional image of college students as 18- to 22-year-olds is looking a bit shopworn. Today, such students are outnumbered by those who are older, working, and often have families of their own. Whereas Prensky worried about digital natives being taught by "digital immigrants"--people who started to use technology only later in life--he did not foresee that many of today's students themselves would fall into this immigrant status.

This story appears in the October 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

As college courses migrate toward a variety of tech-enabled models--blended, flipped, online, and MOOC--students who lack basic computer skills pose significant challenges for instructors and institutions alike. How do you teach a class of students whose tech skills--and access to the technology itself--differ so widely? How do you keep students enrolled who are struggling to master the platform, let alone the course materials?

Access Issues
Natives versus immigrants aside, the biggest problem facing community colleges may be one of straightforward access. A steady stream of industry surveys reinforces a belief that students have all the tech tools they need to succeed in today's digital world. Brian Kibby, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, for example, quotes a statistic that 99 percent of students have access to at least one mobile device. But just because students, particularly low-income learners, have a device doesn't mean they have appropriate access to educational resources.

According to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, most of the mobile devices owned by students are probably cell phones, whose educational utility is limited. More relevant, perhaps, is a 2011 Pew finding that only 70 percent of students at community colleges had a laptop or desktop computer. From a broadband perspective, the news isn't much better: The Pew study showed that only 78 percent of community college students had broadband at home and could connect wirelessly.

The Broadband Divide

A 2013 study of home broadband use by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals a glaring divide in access along socioeconomic lines. Overall, 70 percent of American adults have a high-speed home connection, up from 66 percent a year ago. However, only 37 percent of adults without high school diplomas and 57 percent of high school grads have broadband connections at home, compared with 89 percent of college grads.

Rural residents are also underserved, with only 62 percent enjoying broadband access, compared with 70 percent in urban areas and 73 percent in suburban regions. A racial divide is also apparent: Only 53 percent of Hispanics have home broadband, compared with 64 percent of blacks and 74 percent of whites.

Furthermore, the numbers may paint a picture that is rosier than the reality, according to Susan Crawford in an article in Wired magazine . A professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (NY) and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute , Crawford writes that Pew's definition of broadband as any connection with 4 Mpbs for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads is "absurd," adding that such low speeds are ill suited to a "first-class interactive education." Her bottom line: She'd prefer seeing high-speed internet defined as fixed service of 100 Mbps for both upload and download. Anything else is "second-class."

So how important is access in helping today's college students succeed? Catheryn Cheal, associate vice president and senior academic technology officer at San Jose State University (CA), thinks it's a very big deal. While teaching with Second Life at Oakland University (MI) four or five years ago, she quickly discovered that only about half the class had computers powerful enough to use the virtual environment to its full advantage.

"I really saw the difference between the students who had good computers and those who just had word-processing computers," she recalls. "And the difference made it really clear to me: If a student has to go to a public library--a different place than home--it impacts their homework tremendously. They did about half as well as the other students in the class."

Cheal saw a similar problem during SJSU's spring 2013 experiment with MOOC provider Udacity. Some of the participating students from a nearby charter high school weren't logging on, even two weeks into the course. The cause? "It was the lack of equipment," explains Cheal. "They simply didn't have computers. They didn't have internet access at home. They come from homes that don't have that kind of luxury."

Computer Labs
While cost is definitely a factor for many students, some higher ed experts believe that getting computers into the hands of students may be the easy part--as long as students attend physical campuses. Most universities provide access to computer labs with late-night hours, offer loaner laptops from the library, and have at least some classrooms outfitted with computers.

Chandler-Gilbert Community College (AZ), for example, has equipped about 30 percent of its 170 classrooms with computers for student use. David Smith, manager of the school's help desk, believes computer-outfitted classes help eliminate device inequity. "Not a lot of students have that income in their family to go out and buy the latest and greatest laptop," he says.

School-owned computers come with another benefit, especially for those students who lack basic technical skills: Maintenance and provisioning are the responsibility of the school, not the student. By providing a consistent computing experience, explains Victor Navarro, director of IT at Chandler-Gilbert, faculty don't have to worry about whether students are able to pull up programs or get to particular research sites. When the software looks the same on everybody's screens, it's much easier for instructors to walk students through the necessary steps.

Broadband Issues
But computer labs are not much use if students are taking courses online from home or if they live far from campus. In such cases, students have little option but to buy a device that will allow them to participate in their courses. "You can get the equipment for a couple of hundred dollars," Cheal says, but notes that this expense is just the tip of the iceberg. It's the monthly broadband fees that are the crushing expense--assuming, of course, that broadband is even available.

The situation at the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC) is indicative of the problem at large. While many students could "scrape up the money" to make a one-time purchase of a computer, says Edith Westfall, director of the college's Center for Workforce Strategies, fewer could come up with the monthly payment for internet access. And in spite of its metro setting, the District of Columbia has "large pockets" of housing without easy or affordable access to high-speed internet.

To address the issue, the CWS acquired a number of Kajeet SmartSpots, a smartphone-sized device that delivers WiFi hot spots for small groups of users and provides for remote access management. After an initial trial, though, the center put the lending program on hiatus: The SmartSpots couldn't keep up with the streaming demands of the school's new curriculum platform, which involves more video and interactivity--and more bandwidth. Now UDC-CC is looking at other uses for the devices, including handing them out to an entire class for specific assignments, such as writing a research paper, "to reinforce digital skills, plus research and writing skills," says Westfall.

As for the goal of providing reliable broadband access to students, the college has gone back to the drawing board. For now, students will either have to provide their own internet access or utilize the school's computer labs or library.

Digital Non-Natives
Infrastructure obstacles like those experienced at UDC-CC are always difficult to overcome, since the solution usually requires money--and often action by organizations outside the school's control. But access is just one of the barriers to making online learning available to all. Whatever Prensky may have said back in 2001, some students are still not sufficiently proficient to succeed in today's digital learning environment.

Sallie Lampron, project assistant at the CWS, recalls a "bright and promising" student who wasn't getting her work done. When Lampron met with her to discuss whether something was wrong with the laptop she'd been loaned by the center, the student responded, "Oh, I don't use it." It turns out she couldn't figure out how to hook up the laptop to the Ethernet cable that was already connected to her home computer. Since she didn't have a wireless access point at home, the laptop had become little more than a fancy paperweight.

Without intervention, a lack of basic technical know-how could have prevented the student from completing her program of studies, even though she had the necessary equipment.

Such stories are not uncommon. The average student at UDC-CC's center is 36 and lives in areas of high unemployment or underemployment. Many students have their GEDs or high school diplomas, but they're not necessarily at a high school level for reading or math. They come to the center because "they want a job," says Westfall. "They want to move forward." The primary areas of study are in the fields of applied health, construction, hospitality, and administrative technology.

To get a job, though, students also need to know computer basics. That's certainly the message from businesses looking to hire graduates of the center's certificate and degree programs. "Even jobs [such as] housekeeping in a hotel [require] you to use a digital device to check in and out of a room," notes Westfall. And if students are unable to fill out a job application online, they can't even apply for many of the jobs available.

Unfortunately, many CWS students need to start from a point of almost no understanding. While working on literacy and numeracy programs in a computer lab, for example, students often have difficulty navigating to different pages, distinguishing between a pop-up ad and a legitimate one, saving files to a folder, or using the mouse and keyboard to enter information in a field. As a result, the lab manager tends to spend his time explaining fundamental tech issues rather than focusing on the subjects at hand, such as math or English.

"Our adjuncts are professionals in their fields, not necessarily adult educator specialists," explains Westfall. "So we need to give them better tools."

To tackle the issue, the center has launched a project to reinforce fundamental skills--including basic digital literacy--within the occupational curriculum. The first step was to have the faculty (mostly adjuncts) fill out short questionnaires about what kinds of technical skills they expect their students to have. Next, center staff went through the course materials to help faculty identify where digital literacy instruction could be incorporated. Finally, the center developed procedures to provide students with technical assistance as needed. If a faculty member sets his class an online research assignment, for example, any student without internet access will now receive a one-page sheet created by Westfall and Lampron explaining how to check out a WiFi device from the main office and step-by-step instructions on how to do the assignment. If necessary, Westfall and Lampron are also available to walk students through the process.

Digital Literacy Education
Infusing elements of computer literacy throughout the curriculum definitely helps, but it's not a complete solution. Some kind of formal technical-literacy program is also needed. Unfortunately, many of the available programs don't always mesh with a school's specific circumstances. The CWS has worked with a number of programs, with mixed results.

Several years ago, the center tapped into Microsoft's free Elevate America program, which focuses on providing tech skills and other resources to help people find employment. On the first go-around, the center made the mistake of pursuing Microsoft Word and Excel certification for its students in a summer program. Microsoft provided free vouchers for proctored tests so students could prove their expertise. Because the students had so little computer experience, however, the instructors couldn't complete the training in time and the students failed. "It's hard to explain how to create a new document in Word if you first need to say, 'That means with your right hand move the mouse to the left and select….' That was taking up a huge amount of class time," explains Westfall.

Regrouping from this false start, the center moved onto Microsoft's Digital Literacy curriculum, intended to address just this kind of roadblock. However, the center found the program instructions too technical and complicated for the self-study mode being used to deliver it. "There are a lot of modules you have to navigate through," says Westfall. Plus, the final test was not proctored, which meant students couldn't prove they had taken the test themselves.

Ultimately, the center decided to craft its own solution based on a Moodle platform provided by a third party. It developed a 27-hour basic digital literacy curriculum to be taken in the computer lab. As Westfall describes it, the program showed students "how you move a mouse; this is what a directory is; this is what a keyboard is." The program was competency based, so students could test out of anything they already knew. Unfortunately, this initiative also foundered, but only because of a licensing dispute with the third-party vendor.

Even so, Westfall feels something invaluable was gained: "We learned that in 27 hours you can get someone to the point where they can do fine in an online adult basic education environment."

But the school has also learned that what tech newbies learn in a computer lab does not always transfer to home use. Recently, several of the school's math and reading programs were moved online to give students flexibility around their work schedules. While many students showed progress in a computer lab setting, the advancement stopped when they took their work outside the lab. Even students who had never asked for help from the lab manager, once outside class, "didn't feel comfortable signing on without knowing that there was someone they could talk to," Westfall says.

An Incomplete Revolution
While the hoopla around online learning and MOOCs has focused on their potential to democratize education, the reality may be a little less rosy. For a segment of Americans, the digital walls of Coursera, Udacity, and edX look as daunting as the ivy-covered towers ever did, and it's going to take a concerted educational effort--and better broadband access--to bring them down.

"It's going to continue to be surprising that our students don't have these skills," says Lampron. "It's going to continue to be a point of frustration for some people. So it is worth trying to figure out efficient ways to help students deal with this. And it's worth putting in the extra time in their classes to help instructors deal with these things, because it's going to continue to happen."

"Digital literacy, digital divide, inequality--all those terms come and go, and funding mechanisms for them come and go, and it's easy to get swayed by the buzzword of the year," adds Westfall. "But whatever you call it, this concept is worth pursuing, because you're not serving your students if you don't make [digital literacy education] available."

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