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Planning ahead: Broadband and education in the mountains beyond Covid-19

By Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland, for NEMOR.

During the current Covid19 crisis, we have become ever more dependent on the quality of our broadband connections, for many aspects of our lives. All our meetings are now online (I have now used six different platforms!), those of us with children have had to become part-time home teachers (while trying to work full-time…) using online materials provided by their childrens’ schools (and, in the UK, the BBC) and universities have had to rapidly shift their delivery online. For some universities, this is not just a short-term measure: for example, Cambridge University has announced that all lectures will be online until the end of the next academic year.

So, what are the implications for mountain areas and university education – and research? In various projects in which I have been involved in recent years, and as a member of Euromontana, it has become clear that access to broadband in mountain areas is generally behind that of many other areas – although there are few, if any, reliable statistics on this ‘digital divide’, and the situation continues to evolve rapidly. However, three years ago, the ‘best guess’ was that “only 25% of rural areas are covered by fast (download speed min. 30 Mbit/s) or ultra-fast broadband (download speed min. 100 Mbit/s), as compared to around 70% coverage in urban areas”, as stated by Marie Clotteau of Euromontana in a seminar on ‘Cohesion policy in mountain areas’. It should perhaps be emphasized that this is not only a concern for mountain areas, but also for the other ‘Territories with Geographical Specificities’ (TGS) – sparsely populated areas and islands (many of which are also mountainous) – as explored in the ESPON BRIDGES project. The project’s final report noted that “The relatively lower broadband coverage is linked to small markets and relatively higher costs of provision (but) the potential benefits of digitization are particularly important in TGS.” What is becoming evident during the present crisis is that this is not just about ‘benefits’: it is about being able to function in a society that is having to adapt rapidly in a strange and uncertain world. Some aspects of this, such as less travel and more working from home, are likely to become part of the ‘new normal’.

So, what do we know about the current situation and future prospects for people living in mountain areas? There is a European portal on broadband access but, like many EU mapping projects, the data are only available at NUTS3 level – which rarely align well with mountain areas – and not for all countries. So, analysis of the situation in mountain areas would not be easy at the European scale, though it would probably be possible for some countries. In terms of what is being done to address the digital divide, a 2016 report identified projects in France and Italy funded through public-private partnerships supported by EU funds during the 2007-13 programming period. Since then, EU and national funds have supported numerous strategic investments to improve broadband accessibility in mountain areas, for instance in Croatia, Germany, Greece (at both large and small scales), Portugal, and Scotland, and more funding is available. You can also find other examples in the recently-published handbook on broadband in rural areas. What is interesting is that these projects have been implemented at various scales, and by both governmental and community organisations. Perhaps someone is already studying the many projects that are underway; but, if not, a comparison of the origins, governance structures, delivery and outcomes of these and other projects would be very valuable to inform policy development and implementation in the new programming period.

Turning to university education, while some of you will have had to rapidly adjust your teaching for online delivery in recent weeks, the staff at the Centre for Mountain Studies – part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) – have been teaching entirely online since 2004. The Highlands and Islands are mountainous and sparsely-populated, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, over £300 million of EU and national funds were spent on establishing the UHI, a distributed university in 13 main locations, with over 70 ‘learning centres’ where people can study in their own small communities. A significant part of the investment was in IT connectivity, recognising that this would be necessary in order to ensure that people from across the region could study without moving away – or even to the larger towns in the region. Linked to this, many UHI courses have been partly or entirely online, for two decades. One of these is the online MSc in Sustainable Mountain Development, which I have been leading since it started in 2004.

Earlier this year, I contacted all of our graduates with a series of questions about their reasons for taking the course, their experience, and their subsequent activities. The response rate was great: 80%! For this blog, I will focus only on which benefits of taking a course online they recognised: everyone identified some of these. When they took the course, only 16% of the graduates were living and working in rural mountain locations; the rest were in small or large urban centres, often in mountain areas. But the possibility of studying from home or while travelling – the graduates included some serious mountaineers and frequent travellers – was very important. The most frequently identified benefit was tat they could fit their study around work and family commitments, which is possible because the course is completely asynchronous; students can study at any time of day or night (though they have to submit their assessments on time!). These former students live in many different parts of the UK, other European countries, Canada and the USA. Yet many enjoyed being part of a virtual community; and some still stay in contact with other graduates. At the same time, some people mentioned drawbacks to studying online, particularly the lack of opportunities to interact directly with staff and other students: something I suspect we can all recognise at the moment.

This is just one example, and you can find other online courses in the Mountain Partnership’s Mountain Education Database). However, I hope that the lessons we have learned over the past 16 years will be relevant for anyone currently, or potentially, involved in online teaching – and also that you will eventually be able to read more about our experience in a paper we recently submitted for publication!

In a post-Covid19 world, online education is likely to become even more prevalent, whether courses are entirely online, or partly online, as part of ‘blended delivery’. For everyone living in mountain areas, it will be even more important to have reliable and fast broadband access, and we need to have a better understanding of how this can be delivered most effectively – not only for education, but also for business, government, health care and many other essential activities.

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2 June 2020

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