Dr. Christopher Ali, who is an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, discusses the college homework gap and what COVID-19 has taught us about the digital divide.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: Thanks for tuning in today, and I am so excited to have as our guest, Dr. Christopher Ali, who’s an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Welcome to the show today.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Thank you very much for having me.
Stephen Smith: Dr. Ali joined the department in the fall of 2013 after completing his Ph.D. at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research project that will be coming out as a book next fall — that we’re very excited about — is called “Farm Fresh Spectrum.” It’s looking at rural broadband and the future of connectivity: examining the complicated terrain of rural broadband policy in the United States. And we’re really looking forward to seeing that next year. So the thing we wanted to dig into today, and really what brought your work to our attention recently, was an article that you had written, Dr. Ali, on the broadband gap, which is something that we’ve all heard of. The broadband gap is a very real problem that we hear people in the federal government and agencies, such as the FCC. We hear commissioners talk about that. We hear elected officials down to the local levels talk about the concern that they have for these children who, especially this year, have been disrupted in their education by not having adequate connectivity at their homes. We get this picture of the parents going to the — for some reason, it’s always the local McDonalds when they tell this story. They go to McDonald’s and have to sit in the parking lots and connect to the Wi-Fi in order to do their homework. What we’re not seeing and what we’re not hearing much about until I read your article was how this homework gap impacts the college students. Tell us a little bit about your work and your focus and what you have learned, certainly as a college professor, but also in your research, on how the challenges of rural broadband connectivity are impacting college students.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Right, yeah, I know, and it’s such a great question, and it’s such a kind of under-investigated, under-spoken about issue when we think about the homework gap and the broadband gap and all of these kids who can’t access their homework. But one thing I realized as someone really sensitive to these issues, I’ve been researching broadband and broadband policy for four or five years now, kind of immersed in this world. So when the University of Virginia, like every college and university, announced that we’d be going online, one of my immediate concerns was, well, I don’t know which one of my students has or does not have broadband. This, of course, parallels so much of what we don’t know about who has broadband and who doesn’t have broadband in the United States. And one of my concerns and one of my motivations for writing that article is that we are assuming that college students have broadband when they go home. I mean, when they’re on campus, when they’re on grounds, when they’re in dorms, they have broadband because the universities are providing it. As soon as they leave, we don’t know what their levels of connectivity are. We don’t know if they’re connected. We don’t know if they can afford to be connected. We don’t know if they live in a rural area like so many Americans where just the wires are not there. And so I wrote that article with a lot of this in mind, reminding exactly those policymakers and those providers that college students are facing the exact same homework gap as their K-12 peers. But for some reason, they’re getting left out of the conversation. And again, I think they’re getting left out of the conversation because of what I call “the presumption of the connected” — that we just presume or assume that they have connectivity because their college students, of course, why wouldn’t they?
Dr. Christopher Ali: But in one of my classes early in the spring, I ran a survey just trying to figure out who had broadband and who didn’t, trying to figure out what am I going to do online for my students. And, you know, a significant amount of my students did not have confidence in their broadband connections at home to do a Zoom conversation, a live-video Zoom conversation. That’s striking. This is an elite public university where many students couldn’t participate meaningfully in a live, Zoom conversation. And so what I ended up doing was a couple of things. (1) Encouraging my colleagues to also do these kinds of broadband surveys of their students to check levels of accessibility. And then (2) in that class, I ended up making it text-only. So we would go into a chat room — kind of like you would in the 1990s when I grew up with like ICQ and AOL — and we would chat, like literally text chat rather than voice or audio. And the students got a kick out of it because for them it was totally old school. But they appreciated the fact that I was sensitive to the nature of the digital divide that is impacting students. And that means that when we send students home because of COVID, we can’t just assume they’ve got broadband at home or good enough broadband to do a live virtual class. And so that’s what kind of inspired the article, but also has inspired a lot of my work in the past few months, getting ready for the fall semester and getting UVA ready for the fall semester.
Stephen Smith: So you had enough issues among your students that it dissuaded you from trying even audio, much less video connectivity?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Yeah, absolutely. Enough students also expressed concerns over audio that I just ended up going to this text-based interface. Now, I should preface this by saying that was not the only element of engagement. I was also recording lectures that they could download. All of my students said they could download lectures, but in order to interact with me and interact with their peers, we did it purely by text.
Stephen Smith: In the collaborative setting was by text. Was what you found from that survey of your students, a similar response to what your colleagues there, the other professors, were finding when you reached out to them?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Yeah, I haven’t, unfortunately, had a lot of chances to follow up with a lot of my colleagues. I do know that what my colleagues really appreciated kind of being tuned into these issues and tuned into how to talk about these issues. You know, we were kind of all just expected to jump on Zoom, and then Zoom would be like the great savior of higher education, right? But it turns out Zoom obviously came with all these complications, one of them being that no one ever talks about bandwidth, right? One of my current concerns, actually, is about fraternities and sororities, because there you’ve got 30 or 40 or 20 kids in a building sharing a broadband connection. And unless that broadband connection is fiber, you’re going to have problems if they’re all trying to stream a class virtually or participate in a class virtually. So that’s kind of my current campaign. But I’m pleased to say that, you know, it does seem like that my class may have been a bit of an anomaly in terms of the high percentage of students who aren’t connected. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be sensitive to their issues.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. So even those students who may have stayed on campus in the sororities and fraternities there could well have been experiencing similar issues if they were all sitting there trying to Zoom with their professors during classes.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Yeah, exactly. Because as I often say in teaching and I say in my writing like “not all broadband is created equal.” So it depends entirely on your type of connection, whether or not multiple people can virtually chat simultaneously, you know, like on Zoom, for instance. And unless you’ve got a really high-quality connection there, you’re going to get some buffering. You’re going to get interference. And all of that interferes with the learning experience, right? In a time in which the learning experience has already been so interrupted and anxiety-prone because of COVID, now, it’s frustrating. No one likes it when your screen buffers, right? No one likes it when your screen freezes. And we need to think through, are those students getting a lesser quality educational experience with us because of technology? And if the answer is yes, then it’s our responsibility as professors, as educators, as higher education institutions to develop plans to make sure those students are connected.
Stephen Smith: Hmm. What is the schedule at the University of Virginia? Well, we’re recording this into the second week of September, and have students come back on campus now?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Yes. They have come back on campus, and they’ve started attending classes in person. My department, the Department of Media Studies, has elected predominantly to be online. So both of my classes that I teach are on are online, and that goes for the majority of my colleagues. UVA really let it be up to the professor and the department to decide which classes would be online and which classes would end. But I will say that any class at UVA that is in-person has to have a virtual component so that if a student says, “I want to take that class, but that class is only in-person,” that student still has the ability to choose the virtual option of that class. And then it’s up to the professor to tailor the virtual components. So we’re doing this hybrid model.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. OK, well, we’re seeing, even with the hybrid models, reports of some escalating viral infections on some campuses, in some schools, and even high schools. And I think everyone is moving into the fall semester with an understanding that this is going to be a fluid situation, and we kind of see where things go. How are you feeling as a professor, if we’re looking at a situation here in a few weeks or months, if you get to the point that you cannot complete this semester with all the students fully engaged on campus, to a degree and we go back to what we were looking at earlier this year?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Well, again, I’m lucky in that with both of my classes being online — you know, most of my students are back in Charlottesville, even though they’re online with me. If we get to a situation where students are literally sent home, I do think it’s incumbent upon me to actually send that survey out again. Right, because I’ve surveyed students to make sure they had their connections, you know, a week ago, two weeks ago, or three weeks ago. If they end up changing locations, we’re going to have to reevaluate. And, you know, a number of our students at the University of Virginia come from rural Virginia. A number come from northern Virginia, the Washington, D.C. area, but a huge proportion come from rural Virginia. Rural Virginia is very poorly connected, like so much of rural America is. And if we end up sending students home, then again, I’m going to redo my survey. And we’re like you said, we have to be fluid. We’ve got to be flexible. And if I need to go back to text conversations, then so be it. If it means that I need to record more lectures, so be it. But I will make sure that each and every one of those students has a fair and equitable experience in my class. And I would like to think that that would go for the rest of my colleagues in the Department of Media Studies and at UVA.
Stephen Smith: I think it’s an obvious thing that across many, many sectors in our society, we were not prepared. And I’m not sure how you can be for something of this magnitude, really. You know, we were just not prepared for the changes that we were going to have to make, and I’ve seen so many wonderful examples, including a lot of rural broadband providers, really stepping up to the plate and making swift changes in order to make the best of a bad situation. How do you feel about our readiness as a country and what has to be done? And feel free to jump into some of the material that you’re going to cover in your book that’s coming out. What do we have to do to make sure as a country that we’re more ready if something of this magnitude comes along again or if the magnitude returns and this gets worse? What do we need to be looking at as a nation?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Right. I mean, that’s such a great question. And you’re so right to say that we were unprepared, and we could say, you’re so right, how could we be prepared for this? But the fact of the matter is that we’ve been thinking about broadband and universal broadband for at least six years, if not, well, actually, at least 10 years since the 2010 National Broadband Plan. You can go even before that. The 2009 stimulus package actually included $7 billion for broadband deployment, right? So we’ve been understanding that broadband needs to be universal for slightly longer than a decade. I mean, USDA’s been funding broadband for 20 years. So, kind of one of the things that really baffles me and kind of has driven my research is how is it that we’ve spent so much money, $10 billion a year by my calculation, and yet the digital divide not only exists but in my estimation, is growing. And we can talk about the digital divide not only between those who have the access to the infrastructure and those who don’t, which tends to be rural-urban, right? In rural America, we don’t have the infrastructure, and in urban America, we do. But the digital divide is also about can you afford it? And cost tends to be an urban issue. And that’s where a lot of unconnected people are. You know, something like over 10% of New Yorkers don’t have the Internet because they can afford it. That’s crazy, right? These are things we like we should have been thinking about.
Dr. Christopher Ali: So I think what the pandemic has done is two things. (1) It exposed the failures of broadband policy. But (2) it has given us an opportunity to rethink and step up. So one of the major things that we have to do, and we still don’t know, we don’t know who has broadband and who doesn’t. We also don’t know who’s under-connected and who is minimally connected. We don’t have those numbers. The FCC’s methodology is incredibly flawed. It drastically overcounts and overestimates the level of connectivity in this country, upwards of 50%. We’re letting the largest telecommunications companies kind of run the policy show, and there’s very little accountability for them. And we minimize the role of cooperatives, municipalities, local and rural ISPs who are doing the best that they can. So I think this has created a perfect storm of the fact that upwards of 42 million Americans don’t have access to the Internet at all because of infrastructure. Microsoft says that at least maybe upwards of 152.8 million Americans, or 50% of the country, don’t access the Internet at minimal speeds. This is ridiculous for a country that invented the Internet.
Dr. Christopher Ali: So I think we need, first of all, to figure out who has it and who doesn’t like that. That’s got to be step one. We’ve got to get rid of state laws that stop municipalities from offering or contemplating broadband. Right now, 19 states prohibit municipalities from funding broadband deployment. But if you’re in a small rural county seat and you don’t have a provider, but your state bars you from becoming your own provider, I mean, what are you supposed to do? The market has already failed you. You’re stuck. I think we need to raise the bar in terms of speed. Right now, we define broadband at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. We’ve had this definition since 2015. The reason we have it is that it looks really good because almost everyone has that speed except for those 42 million. I mean, we need to raise the bar. We need to be competitive. We need policies that need to stop privileging the biggest providers and start treating everybody — all types of providers — equally. I actually think what COVID also has done is in 2017, the FCC released a report saying that it would cost us $80 billion to connect everybody with fiber. $80 billion to connect the country. In 2017, that seemed like an astronomical amount of money for the Internet. 2020 when we’re thinking about $2-3 trillion stimulus packages, suddenly $80 billion doesn’t sound like a lot of money. So this is an opportunity for us to connect this country quickly using some of the stimulus money, and there’s precedent for this. We did this in the 1930s and 1940s with rural electricity. The government stepped in and funded these networks. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a government-provided electrical service. Cooperatives were created to manage it. They were they just got their loans and grants from what was then called the Rural Electrification Administration. There’s nothing stopping us from doing that now. We just need the political will to do it.
Stephen Smith: Hmm. Great point. Yeah, you’ve covered a lot of good ground there. One thing that I would like to really emphasize, something that you said, the current definition of broadband is 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed — not only is that not adequate for an average household now but in the new reality where we are having to do a lot of videoconferencing, file sharing, the work from home, some of those numbers are incredible that I’ve seen the shift that has taken place in terms of remote work. And, of course, we’re seeing employer after employer make announcements that this is going to be the way that they’re going to operate for some time. Maybe not 100% of their workforce, but there’s going to be an incredible amount of employees who find themselves in a work from anywhere situation. 3 Mbps upload will not support even having a Zoom conversation, just one-on-one, much less several voices involved because we’ve really seen a shift in the amount of data that we’re having to upload now just to operate in this new reality.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Absolutely. The fact that our definitions are not symmetrical and that 3 Mbps is so low, you can’t do anything like you just said, with 3 Mbps upload. In my interviews, one of my favorite quotes is that “Download is about consumption. Upload is about production.” And so, download is about Netflix. Upload is about doing business. And so really, it’s disenfranchising businesses. If we’re wanting to have this big pro-business rhetoric here, so there’s a number of really great scholars and thinkers who say we need a minimum speed of 100-100. I was just doing some looking around at other countries. Canada’s minimum definition of 50-10. And, you know, we are low by our threshold standards. But I will say, you know, the politics of this, what 25-3 does do is that it allows telecommunications providers to not have to upgrade their networks because they can probably hit 25-3 on a good day. So in my research and one of my big critiques is that the reason that the 25-3 threshold has lasted as long as it has and the FCC doesn’t seem to be inclined to raise it, is that it keeps these big companies in business, and they treat it as a ceiling to meet, not as a floor to build on.
Stephen Smith: Right. Right. It’s like the humorous who joked once, “Keep your expectations for your children low, and you’ll never be disappointed.”
Dr. Christopher Ali: Exactly. And, you know, the FCC can now say, “oh, look, we’ve got 96%” — I can’t remember the exact number is — “coverage of the United States at 25-3.” But if you think about reporting, companies don’t have to report actual speeds; they only have to report advertised speeds and all of that. So all of these rules seem to benefit the largest providers, and they really mask or hide the amazing work being done, particularly in rural America, from cooperatives and smaller ISPs who are really invested in connecting their communities.
Stephen Smith: So some might listen to this overview and say, OK, I get an idea of the landscape, but what is the real cost? Because aren’t we really talking about convenience? When you talk about instead of doing your remote classes with a video component from a collaboration aspect, you found a workaround, and you’re using text-based only. Are there real ramifications here? Don’t we have other things to worry about as a nation? But in some of your work, you’ve really taken a deep look at the fallout from having students in college who are suffering from the lack of connectivity or lack of adequate connectivity. And these are things that can play out and really impact them in their career and ultimately their lives for years to come, right?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Right. OK, so there’s a couple of ramifications here. One is obviously with students. I mean, students without access to the Internet have a lower GPA; that goes for K-12 and university. Their grades will be lower. If you think about what we want from our students in terms of tech-savviness, students without access to the Internet are that much less tech-savvy. But I’m also thinking like bigger. We know that companies will not relocate to an area that can’t offer them high-speed broadband, usually fiber. That is a direct disenfranchisement to rural America when they’re trying to attract businesses to stay in rural America or enter rural America. Here’s something else. A high-speed connection raises a home’s value by 3.1%. So with or without a high-speed connection — not any connection, but high speed, usually fiber — your home’s value goes up. In a time of COVID, access to the Internet is a life and death issue. Telemedicine, for instance. This is going to be one of the major revolutions of telemedicine during this time. We need to be able to talk with our doctors, and you can’t do that over text message, right? I mean, I can try and walk a student through one of the readings that we’ve done over a text message, but a medical doctor, I don’t think can diagnose somebody just by reading symptoms. You’ve got to look at somebody. You know, I don’t know. I’ve got a rash, and [the doctor] looks at this, right? I can’t drive 30 miles from the nearest health clinic, or my health clinic is closed. Or I’m worried about COVID, or I’m immunocompromised. High-speed Internet is — we’re not talking about the difference between buying a Toyota and a Lamborghini. In terms of like, let’s say fiber in terms of high-speed, right? We’re talking about the difference between walking and buying a Toyota. We’re walking right now, and the Toyota is high-speed Internet. And then, everything else coming up are wonderful, different models of this Lamborghini. But like, I’ve heard this analogy used a lot about, well, why do we need everyone to buy the Lamborghini of the Internet? It’s not the Lamborghini of the Internet. This is just baseline. This is just a baseline to live and operate in the 21st century.
Stephen Smith: Well said. You know, I could even see a scenario where a student has to go home. They can’t stay on campus. They do not have connectivity at home. And they say, “well, I’m just not going for this next semester, and I’m going to wait until this thing passes, and hopefully, things will be back to normal next year.” I’m sure you have seen cases where students make that sort of decision, for whatever the case may have been, and you never see that student again.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Oh, yeah. Yeah, no, definitely. I think that’s a very real concern. As students opted or being concerned about not being able to access materials and participate, so they just take the year off. And then one year becomes two years and two becomes three years, and then we lose that student. We lose that voice. I have also heard of community colleges just completely stopping the semester, not even going online because so many of their students don’t have an Internet connection. They feasibly cannot conduct school anymore. So every student has lost a semester or a year. I’ve also heard of rural school districts doing that. And so, you know, I just read a story, an interesting story, in the Canadian north where broadband is equally as terrible as it is in rural America. They’re using phones and fax machines to connect with students because they have phone lines, at least. I mean, when was the last time any of us used a fax machine? But, you know, it’s amazing the workarounds that communities are doing, but imagine a world in which they didn’t have to work so hard to get connected, and they could focus on other things like staying healthy.
Stephen Smith: Right. As you touched on earlier, we’re not talking about an issue. I mean, we’re focusing on this homework gap in this episode, but we’re not talking about an issue that impacts just one specific area, one aspect of our lives, much less society and the workings thereof. We’re talking about the impact on human lives. We’re talking about a technology that is no longer something that’s optional; it’s the way things operate these days from health care, certainly education, small business, economic development. You’re talking about taking an entire generation and saying that you’re not going to have all the opportunities that — it’s going to take us another generation to fix this issue, and then everything’s going to be great. But what about the human toll that that takes, not just on lost productivity in lower wages, lost opportunities, lower GDP. You know, we need to look past those numbers and say these are human lives that we can — if we get the policy right, if we get our focus right, and if we put the dollars, the policy, the resources, the attention behind that — that we can actually fix this, and it will be something positive moving forward. And from what I hear, I think your work really advocates for that.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Thank you. Yeah. You know, I’m trying, and I echo everything that you say because this is not an impossible situation. This is not a problem without a solution. We know there is a solution. We just have to get everybody on board for that solution. There’s a very clear solution to these issues. And, you know, like I kind of said before, we have a moment to kind of rally around broadband connectivity. If only because, as you said, there’s a generation of kids who are missing out on opportunities.
Stephen Smith: Well, I certainly want to have you back on the podcast when your book comes out next year. But give our listeners a little bit of a tease, if you will, and kind of give us a point or two, a chapter title or two, or something to look forward to. Kind of plug your book for us.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Yeah, absolutely. So the book’s title is a little bit in flux. Right now it’s “Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Broadband and the Future of Connectivity.” That might change, but obviously my name hasn’t changed if anyone wants to look it up. One of my favorite chapters is titled “The Jolly Green Giant Goes Digital,” and it’s about the role of broadband in American farming. And I spent a lot of time on American farms, particularly in Minnesota. So the chapter actually recalls me spending time in Blue Earth, Minnesota, which is home of the Jolly Green Giant, and some of the amazing applications of broadband to contemporary agriculture. So it’s a chapter that I try and kind of humanize broadband a little bit and say, “it’s not just about broadband policy. Look at what we could do with broadband.” And the conclusion of the book actually outlines my vision for a connected America. So what is it that I think through my four years of research that we need in order to make sure everybody is connected?
Stephen Smith: Oh, that sounds fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading that. And we’ll certainly have you back on to talk about that and help you spread the word on that and promote that book.
Dr. Christopher Ali: That would be wonderful. It would be an honor to come back. It was an honor to speak with you today. And I really appreciate this opportunity to talk about the homework gap.
Stephen Smith: Well, thank you, Dr. Ali. And if someone out there listening wants to connect with you, are you on Twitter? LinkedIn? How will folks find you?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Yeah, I can be reached by email. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’m on Twitter every day at @Ali_Christopher.
Stephen Smith: All right, great. Well, I look forward to connecting with you there as well. Again, our guest today is Dr. Christopher Ali, and he is the associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. It’s been great having you on today. I’ve enjoyed our conversation.
Dr. Christopher Ali: Me too, immensely. Thank you so much.
Stephen Smith: And thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thank you for listening.