Access to reliable, affordable, and high-speed Internet has become an integral part of the post-secondary student experience in Canada. Not only is the Internet a hub for social communication and financial management, it is also a necessity for students who use it to register for courses, check syllabi, submit assignments, and access library resources. It has undoubtedly improved the accessibility of the student experience by making online courses and resources more accessible, but its necessity has also imposed additional costs, and created new gaps, for students already facing systemic barriers. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these gaps by forcing hundreds of thousands of post-secondary students to study from their bedrooms, no matter where they live and with no regard to their level of access to at-home technological resources.
Prior to the pandemic, many students without technological resources relied on-campus amenities such as free high-speed wireless Internet and access to sufficient computer workstations. This is an unfortunate circumstance in and of itself, but it was made worse by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mandated at-home learning that it required. Since March 2020, many low-income post-secondary students have been placed in impossible circumstances, dealing with insufficient Internet bandwidth and juggling one household computer amongst multiple users. This is an unsustainable reality, and more must be done to close the technology affordability gap for low-income post-secondary students looking to adequately supply themselves, especially in a time of pandemic-imposed at-home learning.
Beyond affordability, many students learning from home with an adequate workstation are still unable to properly participate in class due to their poor Internet connectivity. This access gap is particularly acute for many rural students who are unable to access the high-speed broadband available in Canadian cities. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission estimates that only 68% of rural residents in Canada have access to broadband Internet fast enough to sustainably access the kind of videoconferencing applications used for online learning. This is compared to 100% of urban residents. Recognizing this gap impacting rural students, the federal government has promised to accelerate its investment and connect 98% of Canadians by 2026. This is a much-welcomed target, but it must be achieved, and more must be done in the meantime to support those with limited access and resources.
Because of that, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps in technological and broadband access for post-secondary students:
- Accelerate investment, with immediate steps, into improving rural high-speed Internet access across Canada.
- Commit additional funding to provide appropriate digital technology to any low-income post-secondary student who needs it.