Hello from the Student Side: Technological Considerations in Distance Learning

No Wifi Signal Symbol

Are your students receiving you in the way you planned?

I for one am very excited to begin this school year via distance learning. Distance learning definitely offers a whole host of challenges, but there’s an energy in facing and overcoming these challenges. We are probably in the throes of adapting to online teaching practices: how do I best utilize videoconferencing (such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) or our Learning Management System of choice (whether it be Google Classroom, Canvas, Moodle, or even Blackboard) to get students to learn what I need them to learn? And I’m imagining that many of us are coming up with some great ideas, leveraging the multimedia and interactive nature of these online platforms for maximum effect. However, this type of high bandwidth, synchronous teaching has some considerations that may be overlooked. One key consideration that we may not have thought about, and I know I’m guilty of this as well in my enthusiasm, is almost the flip side of the online coin: how are students actually receiving the information I’m giving them? 


This question has come up indiscussions I’ve had with my fellow instructors regarding distance learning, and I think it can be boiled down to two main considerations. First, what kind of internet access are available to my students? And second, what kind of a device are they actually using to access our distance learning platforms? 


The question of internet access feels like a given in this day and age, but I learned in a rather unusual way that access to the internet shouldn’t be taken for granted. At the start of the lockdown, classes had gone online, but the campus was still open for faculty and staff. One day, I went to my office for some material and I found another instructor on campus in the otherwise abandoned building. Curious about why they were here, I asked, and the response took me by surprise: “Oh, I don’t have internet at home.” While his lack of access may have been driven by choice, some of our students may not have the luxury of choosing whether or not to have internet: the cost of internet access is often prohibitive, if even available at all.  Depending on one’s zip code and location, access to high-speed and broadband internet is simply out of reach.

Moreover, just having access to internet isn’t enough: what kind of internet access is also a key question. In my own experience, I’ve discovered that the internet I pay for can be dodgy: between the cable company, the cable modem, and the wi-fi router, there could be any number of issues that prevents a steady, quality connection. In my own household, we have a number of connected devices that likewise degrades the connection. It’s not hard to imagine a large household where everyone connects their smartphones to wi-fi access in order to save on cellular costs. Likewise, not everyone has the ability to pay for top tier of access. If we start streaming high bandwidth videos and are constantly asking students for Zoom lectures, the quality of those connections may degrade. 

The other question about the types of devices that students may use also came up in an unexpected way. I was telling a colleague about how I liked to share my screen in recorded Zoom lectures and use Google Docs or Microsoft Word to show sentence construction or other written skills. He asked, “what if students are watching the video on a phone? Will they be able to see the screen?” That question took me aback; I certainly didn’t know the answer because I didn’t even consider that students would be watching my lectures on their phones. But that could be a very real possibility: smartphones are the primary access to the internet for a lot of students, and at times, the phone experience is markedly different from the tablet or laptop/desktop or Chromebook experience. Thus, another thing we might want to consider is the type of devices that students are using to access our courses. Again, the question of high bandwidth comes into play: if students are accessing the course primarily through their smartphone, they may not have unlimited data plans and they’re access speeds may be throttled. Or perhaps their Chromebook or laptop is not of the latest generation and high quality streaming videos may tax their antiquated machines.

This blog is not necessarily to dictate “low-bandwidth” strategies, but it is to ask instructors to consider the student on the other end of the course and the different factors that come into play when they access our online courses. Maybe you have thought of these and you’ve baked in these considerations into your course design, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to reconsider our course design through our students’ technological shoes.