How this university is closing the digital divide during COVID-19

The University of Houston-Downtown delivered retired computers to students without internet or devices so they can complete their coursework at home

School closings as a result of the coronavirus have exacerbated the college digital divide in various cases since many higher ed institutions don’t have computers for college students to take home. Facing a similar situation, the University of Houston-Downtown’s information technology department launched an electronic waste management initiative that involved delivering multiple retired computers to students without access to internet or web-enabled devices to complete their coursework.

UHD students also received WiFi adapters since these four- and five-year-old computers didn’t come with built-in wireless internet and were originally used on a wired network. Additionally, the Texas school provided adapters for students without any wireless connectivity at home.

“Our university IT strategy required quick planning, coordination, and being committed to help our students,” says Hossein Shahrokhi, CIO and assistant vice president of information technology.

Pursuing electronic waste management

During the transition to online learning, an IT survey found that many students didn’t have computers at home, so officials decided to recycle computers that the university had originally planned to resell under its exiting program. “We highly discounted the sell price, and the minimal cost was placed on students’ account per their agreement, though our goal is to offset the minimal cost through donations or other university aids,” says Shahrokhi.

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Over the course of five afternoons, IT staff wiped these computers for college students clean of previous data and rebuilt them with the most updated operating system and latest security patches. Productivity software and utilities are available online to students with valid accounts to download.

Every effective university IT strategy involves communication

After finding computers for college students to take home, the University of Houston-Downtown prepared the devices for delivery.
University of Houston-Downtown prepares to send computers to students who don’t have access to such devices at home.

Unfortunately, UHD did not have enough computers to address every student’s need, so IT officials contacted every student who needed a computer to assess their situation. “During these calls, a good number of students indicated fairly quickly that they had access to other equipment, even though it was not as convenient,” says Shahrokhi. “So we had to explain to them that our effort was to address those who had no access at all, which was effective in cutting down the requests and identifying their actual need.”

In many cases, students could activate a hotspot on their smartphone for internet access or use another device from a roommate or family member, for example.

“The college digital divide maybe a clichÁ© but it is real, especially for urban universities like ours with a diverse student body of all different backgrounds and means,” says Shahrokhi. “It was a rewarding experience working with scores of extremely grateful students who clearly would not have been able to continue their coursework if it weren’t for the equipment that UHD provided.”

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