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'A necessity': Rural post-secondary students face online learning hurdles

Tracy Prybylski doesn't need to be on campus this year to attend her online courses at the University of Regina.
Tracy Prybylski doesn't need to be on campus this year to attend her online courses at the University of Regina.
She'd rather be living and studying at her parents' place, but she's still paying rent to live in Regina because the internet at her parents' farm west of Yorkton is so bad that it makes online learning untenable.
“It’s absolutely not a possibility at all when you can’t even load a Google page on your phone to look up something," says Prybylski, a second-year film and media studies student.
"Goodness forbid you have to go online and listen to a Zoom call or hand in an assignment.”
Prybylski is among Saskatchewan's post-secondary students struggling with remote learning because their rural home towns don't have adequate internet.
Her father, Bill Prybylski, is a vice-president with the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS). He says internet issues are "handcuffing" rural economies in the province and make it unappealing for new businesses to open up in rural communities.
He says bad service results in farmers missing deals on online farm auctions and falling behind on new technology.
While the federal government announced a $1.75-billion universal broadband fund in November, Prybylski said the lack of access continues to put rural residents at a disadvantage.
“(Remote learning) is just another (one) of a myriad of reasons why we need better internet access at the farm,” he said.
An APAS discussion paper released earlier this month says the pandemic has underscored inequalities between rural and urban education.
Many rural parents who spoke with the discussion paper's authors said poor internet access limited their children's classroom participation, while other students had to leave home to attend online classes. That can be detrimental to rural Saskatchewan in the long term because retaining young people is key for the survival of rural communities.
"Without young people, our rural communities cannot thrive long-term," the paper said.
Tiara Thiessen from Kerrobert, about 180 kilometres west of Saskatoon, is a first-year welding student at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.
Though she lives in Saskatoon and takes a mix of in-person and online courses, she sometimes attends classes from Kerrobert over long weekends. When that happens, she has to contend with three younger siblings also attending classes online with limited bandwidth.
She says that's led to a rule when she's home: “If I’m on school, don’t watch movies."
Not only is internet access key to school and work, it also allows people to maintain a support network during trying times when they're discouraged from seeing each other in person.
Tracy Prybylski says it's "ridiculous" that not all areas of the province have equal access.
"(At) this time, internet isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity."