Students were thrust into online and remote learning this past spring and the fall semester was an improvement to in-person classes. Nevertheless, it wasn't perfect, and most courses were delivered in a hybrid format, meaning at least half of each student's class-time was experienced online. Other students continued to learn online from home.
The issue is that many members of either group cannot access the internet or a computer - two vital ingredients comprising a college education - that otherwise would have been available to them during a normal semester.
Fortunately, the State of Iowa is disbursing $6.9 million from the Governor's Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund to help higher education institutions deliver instruction remotely to their students. Components of the grant include internet connectivity and access; professional development; and adult education and literacy.
St. Ambrose was approved to spend $58,135.89 to distribute laptops, internet hotspots, and other technology. The state is responsible for reimbursing the University for those expenditures.
To receive computing or connection equipment, students must qualify for the federal Pell Grant, which is given to undergraduate students with the highest financial need. To date, the University has received 13 requests.
And while it's true the internet is accessible via smart phones, the connection can be unreliable, inconsistent, and/or use the person's cellular data. In other cases, some students have laptops but they aren't equipped with a camera or microphone to participate in online meetings, make video recordings for assignments, or attend a synchronous class.
Shelly Lowery, Director of Information Technology at St. Ambrose, purchased 20 U.S. Cellular hotspots to help with that problem (hotspots connect to U.S. Cellular towers) along with 20 laptops and 10 webcams with microphones. All equipment is on loan to the students and returned to IT at the end of the semester or until the student finishes classes, she said.
Lowery said this experience of loaning long-term laptops and technology is giving her and the IT team ideas about how to expand this service to students beyond the pandemic.