Virtual Learning Challenges in Rural Appalachia
By Matt Stewart and Phillip Logsdon
Originally posted in College Services Magazine
Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor, and service. The college admits only academically promising students with limited financial resources, primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia, although students come from 40 states and 70 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition. Berea is one of eight federally-recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly, earning money for books, housing, and meals. The College’s motto, "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth," speaks to its inclusive Christian character.
On March 10, 2020, Berea College made the tough decision to cease in-person instructional activities and, by March 13, began completing the spring 2020 term in a virtual environment. One of the many challenges Berea students faced when returning home was the lack of internet connectivity to be successful in the remaining weeks of the academic semester. Berea College serves a student body in which approximately 70% call the Appalachian region home. Many remote areas in Appalachia provide limited internet services that may not be available to every home in the area. While every Berea student is provided a college-owned laptop at the beginning of their college career to use throughout their time at Berea College, the transition to the virtual environment posed challenges for some when returning home because of limited access to a stable internet connection.
By the end of the first week of virtual remote learning, more than 100 students had requested assistance in locating a stable internet connection, and the number quickly grew as the semester continued. Berea’s Information Systems & Services team began searching for ways to assist students with internet connectivity needs. This included working closely with local ISPs in Appalachia, cellular providers that could provide data for students in places that ISPs may not, and mainstream telco’s that could assist Bereans. Nearly three out of four Bereans were in an area that telcos were able to be supported with service through Pandemic promotions that were being offered to all students who may not have internet access.
For the remaining student population that was not able to obtain internet access by ISPs Berea furnished internet access through cellular data hotspots that the college provided at no cost to our students. Using an online request form, each student who needed assistance still was able to view cellular coverage maps and select the service provider required to complete the spring 2020 term successfully. Devices were drop-shipped directly to each Berea student who still needed assistance with internet access. Upon completion of the semester, students were offered a pre-paid shipping container for the device to be returned to the college.
As a residential campus, the Berea College community was challenged to teach and learn in new ways when traditional in-person classes ceased. Adapting to virtual learning and many college support functions becoming remote was a historic challenge for all Bereans. Even though Information Systems & Services is currently working from a remote location, the department continues to provide internet access and technical support daily to our entire campus community. It has been both challenging and rewarding to know that the department is assisting Bereans to obtain a high-quality education during uncertain times.
Matt Stewart is Network & Infrastructure Services Director at Berea College. He began work at Berea College in June 2018 as the college Information Security Audit Officer before transitioning into his current capacity as Network & Infrastructure Director in May 2019. Matt brought with him more than 10 years of Higher Education IT experience at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky where he served as the Director of Information Technology and then the Director of Human Resources & Risk Assessment. During the latter position, he remained the Interim Director of Information Technology. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Alice Lloyd as well as a Master of Business Administration and Master of Science in Information Systems & Security both from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky.
Phillip Logsdon is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Berea College, where he has been employed since 2016. He was promoted to CIO in February 2020, five weeks before the COVID-19 crisis. Phillip is a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Justice & Safety. He oversees the Information Systems and Services (IS&S) division and is responsible for information technology deployed throughout Berea College to carry out its multi-faceted mission. Phillip has 18 years of experience in the Higher Education Information Technology field in various progressing positions, including positions at Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College.