No access: Helping students who have limited access to the internet

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A few years ago, I worked for an agency that supported language instructors who worked with newcomers to Canada (LINC). During that time, I gave a presentation on helping students who had limited access to the internet at home, some of them with either no computer or limited access to a computer due to financial reasons. Few of them actually had smartphones, especially those who had arrived recently as refugees with barely the things they needed to survive.

I remember one woman telling me that her family’s heartbreaking story of getting to Canada, only to end up in a 2 bedroom apartment for her family of six. Someone had given them an old desktop computer so her four kids could do their homework, but they didn’t have internet access at home nor a phone. I found out after she had missed a few classes and I told her she could access the things she had missed on our class website. After she told me that she didn’t have any internet access, I offered to give it to her on a USB drive, but she said that she had to wait until her kids were done with their homework which meant she would only be able to access it late at night. Considering she had to get up at 5:30am to start breakfast for the family, I felt this was too much to ask.

This story illustrates some of the things we unfairly assume when we ask students to use technology inside and outside the classroom. As anyone who follows this site, you know that I believe that technology can be a powerful tool in language learning and, when used effectively, can bridge some of the access gaps that students face on a regular basis. However, we need to continue to fight to support our students in gaining that access instead of being pushed further out. If you have any students who are in this situation, here are some things you can do to help them gain access without burdening them any further.

Low-cost or free computers

In my situation, I was able to get my student in touch with an agency that recycles older computers and provides them to people at a very low price, or for free. In this situation, they offered to train one of her kids on computer repair in return for a refurbished laptop. He volunteered with them and then used those skills to get into a school to train as a Microsoft technician.

There are lots of agencies that do similar things for those in need. Search online for computer recycling in your area and contact them about possibly getting free computers for your students. Most of these agencies have an application process which you can either do for your students or they can do on their own.

Technology library

One thing that I would like to see more schools do is to provide computers, tablets, and other technology-related items on a loan basis to students. In my situation, the school didn’t have the funds to do that, so I did it on my own. I got some simple USB MP3 players with a voice recorder function for really cheap (about $15 each) that I lent to my student with the listening material on it from previous classes. I also asked them to do some recording assignments for pronunciation and fluency practice.The students really liked these simple devices, especially those who were nervous about computers.

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You can find these types of devices online for fairly cheap, often with other functions like a simple video or photo camera and screen to watch. Another option similar to this is an old cell phone without a SIM card. You can also pick these up at these recycling stations for really cheap and they have lots of handy functions for the classroom.

Portable apps

This is one of my favourite things to use with my students. There are a number of open-source / freeware programs that can be run off of a simple USB drive. The reason this is so helpful, is that students can use someone else’s computer, such as at a library, and can keep their information relatively private and they have access to their own programs which they are comfortable using. Students can install programs on a USB drive, go to the library, and do their work there.

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Here are some of my favourite portable apps that I use myself or have my students use:

  • Audacity: students can record themselves and can even edit it before saving as an audio file they can share with me and the other students.
  • VLC: you can play almost any type of media file possible. There are also a number of handy functions you can use a a teacher. I’ve even done a blog post on this program.
  • LibreOffice: this is a full Microsoft Office compatible office suite that is incredible powerful. Students can write documents, create presentations, and learn valuable skills for future work.
  • Firefox: instead of using the browser on the library computer, students can use their own browser with their own bookmarks and passwords saved on their USB drive.
  • CamStudio: students and teachers can make screencasts of their presentations or instructional videos.

Free internet access

Many larger communities have organizations that provide internet access for individuals who can’t afford to purchase it from a regular ISP. These services are provided along with training and support to help those who may not understand how to use the internet. For example, in the Vancouver region, Vancouver Community Network provides free dial-up service, email address, and web page hosting for those who can’t afford it.

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