“The internet is no longer this perceived privilege, or some convenience, it is truly fundamental to one’s quality of life and our society at large. The internet has become this new superhighway connecting businesses, and health care, and education, and students.”

Scott Pulsipher is the president of Western Governors University, the highly-respected, fully-online university that continues to reinvent postsecondary education.

In this episode of the Work in Progress podcast, Pulsipher and I talk about the importance of a reliable and affordable internet infrastructure, a necessity that has become all-the-more apparent since the pandemic. And, sadly, so has the digital divide.

This at a time, Pulsipher argues, “If individuals don’t have that internet access, we certainly are going to find ourselves in a situation where large portions of our people are not able to engage in the economy and change their lives.”

“If individuals don’t have that internet access, we certainly are going to find ourselves in a situation where large portions of our people are not able to engage in the economy and change their lives.”

Barriers to Access, and the Cost to Society

The estimates vary, but it is accurate to say that tens of millions of Americans don’t have reliable access to broadband. While many of these individuals are living is rural areas or on tribal lands, the majority of them are in urban areas and don’t subscribe because of the cost.

We’ve watched as students, particularly K-12 students, struggled to learn in a remote environment in which they don’t have adequate online access, he says.

“They’re out there in parking lots of restaurants, or they’re having to go to a library, or figure out where they can get Wi-Fi anywhere they possibly can. Because even if they are able to do so, the inconvenience of having to do that creates such barriers to the consistent and needed engagement that they need not just with their learning resources, but also with their faculty and peers. This is stunting progress and growth of the students.”

And it isn’t just students that are struggling without reliable internet. For the “10 million plus individuals who are still displaced from work because of the pandemic, one of the biggest things that they need access to is the reskilling and upskilling pathways, whether that’s through postsecondary programs with universities and colleges, whether that’s through job training or other models of learning.”

Pulsipher says he believes the remote learning model is here to stay and it’s time for action to make sure everyone has access.

“The lack of access to high-speed internet is fundamentally creating barriers to the engagement of these individuals and households in our society. So we’re finding that that divide—if we don’t address it—is going to significantly disenfranchise large portions of our population for a long time,” says Pulsipher.

Reasons for Optimism

For its part, Western Governors University has introduced online access scholarships. “We’ve committed a million dollars in this first year to provide computers and covering the ongoing cost of internet connectivity for recipients during their enrollment at WGU, because we are trying to and striving to be as close to an open access university as we possibly can.”

Pulsipher also says he’s seen some really strong and positive trends—at city, state, and federal levels—when it comes to addressing the digital divide and he describes several paths to a solution.

“We’re really excited about the fact that when the infrastructure spending bills or the infrastructure priorities are advanced at a federal level, as well as the state level, they’re recognizing the importance of this digital divide. So we’re quite encouraged by that.

“We also believe that the real work can’t happen without public-private engagement. That investment needs to be made, and having that capital available to the private organizations to do so that’s a really good thing.

“The other way in which it can happen is also through the internet service providers being able to provide the affordable subscriptions, but they’re doing so under federal programs that make it possible to do so.

“At the end of the day the problem isn’t solved by one entity alone. It’s really going to depend upon federal and state governments, as well as then the private organizations, whether you’re a service provider, a capital investment, et cetera. So we’re excited about the progress that I think is happening.”

Pulsipher is passionate about finding solutions. I encourage you to listen to the entire podcast for more on what he thinks about the cost of doing nothing to solve the digital divide.

You can listen here, or download and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Download the transcript for this Work in Progress podcast here.

Episode 180: Scott Pulsipher, president, Western Governors University
Host: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan LynchMelissa Panzer, and Ramona Schindelheim
Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0.

You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts