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Writing a term paper on a cell phone? For Colorado college students forced off campus by coronavirus, that may be the best option.

As Colorado universities shift to online classes to shield themselves from COVID-19, students lacking computers and internet access may have to get creative

Students work on computers at the Auraria Library at the Auraria campus in downtown Denver. The campus will remain open to students as higher education institutions move to online courses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)
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Haley Colling hunkers down in the Auraria Library just about every weekday, often relying on the library’s computers and internet connection to complete her homework. With a broken laptop and a weak internet connection at home, the Metropolitan State University of Denver sophomore depends on the campus’ technology to keep pace with her academics.

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That pace may be more challenging to stay on top of as MSU Denver makes the move to online learning in the coming weeks — a tactic being rolled out at several Colorado colleges and universities as they work to limit the spread of the new coronavirus on campuses.

With the number of confirmed cases continuing to rise in Colorado — totaling 49 on Thursday — higher education institutions are now scrambling to ensure faculty are ready to take their teaching to the digital sphere for at least part of the spring semester. They’re also trying to identify solutions to a problem that online classes present for some students: How do you complete your schoolwork if you lack a computer or access to the internet?

That’s a question that affects many students across Colorado, particularly in rural areas lagging behind in internet infrastructure but also in cities like Denver where the internet is simply too expensive for some households.

Comcast is taking the lead on one solution. On Thursday, it began offering its discounted Internet Essentials service for free for 60 days to new families “to support more Americans – including college students – through this coronavirus pandemic,” spokesperson Alison Busse said in an email. The service is usually $9.95 per month and is offered to low-income households.

The Comcast Technology Solutions office in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood on Nov. 18, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The company is also boosting the download speeds to 25 mbps, from 15 mbps, for all Internet Essentials customers. The service will maintain that speed moving forward. And because of an expansion to the program in August, it’s open to more students than ever before.

Eligible households include those participating in one of more than a dozen major federal public assistance programs, such as Medicaid, SNAP, HUD assistance, the National School Lunch Program and SSI,” she added.

Colorado higher education institutions are also developing their own measures to assist students who can’t easily get their hands on technology or the internet, though some schools are still exploring the best approaches to serving those students.

At MSU Denver, campus leaders and faculty are setting up all courses so they could technically be completed with a smartphone. University courses use an online education tool known as Blackboard, which can house a variety of class materials including assignments and virtual discussions. Blackboard has a mobile application for smartphones, so students can readily access it.

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Matt Griswold, director of online programs for the university, acknowledges that while many components of classes could easily be done on a cell phone, other requirements will be more difficult — but still possible.

Typing a paper on a cell phone won’t be easy, he said, but it is possible.

“We are asking everyone to be flexible and to know that we are all working on this in the moment,” Griswold said.

The university administrator also noted that those with a cell phone and a phone plan may be able to create a free hotspot, which would allow them to connect their computer to the internet and manage class assignments that way.

For students severely limited when it comes to technology, MSU Denver has a stock of laptops, tablets, hotspots and other hardware that students can ask to use, Griswold said. However, the school’s inventory is limited so it won’t be able to provide devices to every student.

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. (Provided by the CDC)

Students will still be able to step foot onto campus as it remains open at least through spring break, which means that students who lean heavily on campus resources, like Colling, can hunker down in the library.

Colling’s school weeks can be complicated enough without all the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, known formally as COVID-19. Colling, who is studying biology, drives an hour each way to and from school, sometimes longer if there’s traffic. The commute from her Strasburg home is necessary since campus is one of her best bets for reliable Wi-Fi.

“It feels like I don’t have enough time to study,” she said.

At home, she struggles to download learning materials such as Powerpoint presentations — which she said her chemistry teacher will be using throughout the rest of the semester, giving her all the more need to be on campus.

She understands why MSU Denver has opted for remote learning but is apprehensive about tackling her classes virtually.

“It makes sense to keep the coronavirus controlled, I guess, but I personally learn better when I’m in the classroom and I’m able to ask the professors questions right then and there,” Colling said.

MSU Denver shares a downtown Denver campus — the Auraria campus — with the University of Colorado Denver and the Community College of Denver, both of which are also making the move to online instruction. The campus will stay open for students of all three institutions. Sarah Erickson, senior media relations and communications specialist for CU Denver, said the shared library — the Auraria Library — can rent out laptops and hotspots to the university’s students.

CU Denver has also asked its deans and associate deans to track extra laptops in their departments that can be loaned out to students for the rest of the semester, Erickson said.

At the PCs for People store at 1548 W. Alameda Ave. in Denver, the nonprofit sells wireless internet for people with qualified low incomes. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Another technology avenue: outside partners. CU Denver is reaching out to corporate partners and outside organizations that might be able to offer computers or internet access. Among them is PCs for People, a national nonprofit that refurbishes technology donated by companies.

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PCs for People works with about 300 companies in the Denver area, according to Tony Frank, business development manager.

The organization sells desktops for as little as $30 and laptops for as little as $50, Frank said. He’s had conversations with more than one higher education institution this week about how to provide technology assistance to students as they transition to online learning. He anticipates the nonprofit will help about 1,500 college students in Colorado.

To meet that demand, Frank said the organization is trying to increase the number of computers refurbished and distributed by 300 each week, which means PCs for People is also seeking more hardware donations from companies.

Frank stressed that across all grades — kindergarten through college — students and families need lower cost options for computer devices and the internet.

“We know that there’s more demand than we’re filling right now,” he said.


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