How Colleges Are Bridging the Digital Divide

When the coronavirus pandemic forced campuses to shut down abruptly in March 2020, colleges and universities scrambled to move courses online — in turn bringing to light an existing digital divide in education.

Many students went from being able to access on-campus computer labs and other technology resources on a daily basis to not having broadband or laptops at home, making online learning difficult. As remote learning and work became the new normal, colleges had to adapt to ensure that every student had the resources necessary to complete his or her courses.

[READ: Coronavirus School Closings Expose Digital Divide.]

What Is the Digital Divide?

“The digital divide is the disparity that we see in access to technology that influences how different groups of people are able to interact with or benefit from technology-based resources,” says Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, a Colorado-based network of partner organizations focused on improving student outcomes through digital learning for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, first-generation and poverty-affected students.

Compared to 23% of households with income below $30,000, 63% of households earning at least $100,000 have homes with broadband services, a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone and a tablet. Thirteen percent of adults at that lowest income level have access to none of these technologies at home, according to a Pew Research Center survey this year.

One of the most prominent reasons families lack reliable WiFi is the cost, which averages $68.38 a month in the U.S., according to data from New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Other families report only needing smartphones, says Colleen McClain, a Pew research associate who focuses on tech and the internet.

“A majority of Americans say people who don’t have high-speed internet are at a major disadvantage for things like getting school work done and looking for jobs, etc,” she adds.

Digital Divide in Higher Education

“There’s a lot of discussion about the digital divide among the general population and K-12 students, but I don’t think that people realize that college students also have a digital divide among them,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant vice provost of research and program assessment for Ohio State University‘s Office of Student Academic Success.

For example, about 19% of undergraduate students at Indiana University–Bloomington and Ohio State did not have the adequate technology needed to participate in online learning, with higher rates among Black, Hispanic, and small-town or rural students, according to a report published in January by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. That trend is seen across the country.

Finding that not every student or faculty member had access to reliable internet, schools such as Lewis University in Illinois and the University of Kentucky repurposed nearby empty parking lots and other outdoor public spaces to include Wi-Fi. In some cases, the internet was also open to the general public.

As time went on, schools like Everett Community College in Washington sought more “permanent” solutions by providing technology directly to students through loaner Chromebooks and hotspots. Faculty members also had permission to take certain equipment from campus and use available hot spots, says Tim Rager, the school’s executive director of information technology.

“Pre-pandemic, even though we had computer labs, a lot of students would do work on their phone,” he adds. “They would even type papers on their phone. It just shows there really is a need for better access to technology.”

The digital divide in higher education is more “nuanced,” Williams says, as it goes beyond the technology and broadband access gap for students and faculty members. It also applies to disparities among confidence levels related to remote learning.

Nearly 20% of students reported struggling with learning how to use education technology, the College Innovation Network reported.

Additionally, 14% of undergraduate students and 8% of graduate and professional students at public research universities lacked familiarity with technical tools necessary for online learning, according to a 2020 study from the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium, an academic and research policy collaboration based at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California–Berkeley.

[Read: How to Overcome Challenges of Online Classes Due to Coronavirus.]

As it looks to address these digital literacy barriers, EvCC plans to create opportunities for students to learn how to operate devices, create documents, track grades and produce multimedia presentations.

“In this world, not only being literate is required but I really want our students to be savvy,” Rager says. “I want our students to harness technology to meet their life dreams and life goals. I’m hoping the work that we invest in and we do gives them that platform and that foundation to do that.”

Remote learning was also new to many faculty members. Before COVID-19, faculty at two-year institutions were significantly more likely to have prior experience with teaching online compared to those at a four-year university, according to a 2020 report from Every Learning Everywhere and Tyton Partners.

To adapt, many instructors relied on online learning workshops. The United Negro College Fund partnered with Strategic Education Inc., for example, to provide a four-week professional development training for up to 1,500 faculty members at historically Black colleges and universities and predominantly Black institutions. The program is expected to run until the end of 2021.

Despite many campuses returning to in-person learning, efforts to bridge the digital divide endure.

[MORE: Schools Race to Give Students Access]

For fall 2021, new first-year and transfer students at eight participating California State University campuses received an iPad Air tablet, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio. Students can keep the devices until graduation. This is part of the phase-one launch of the California State University Connectivity Contributing to Equity and Student Success initiative, known as CSUCCESS.

If a college student anywhere cannot access coursework, tests or attend meetings due to limited or no broadband, experts suggest reaching out to a dean, faculty member or peer.

“Know you are not alone in this problem,” says Manny Rodriguez, associate director of policy and government relations at The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit educational equity organization. “It is common and we can find community to really problem-solve together … Unfortunately, they have to do some self-advocacy, which shouldn’t be the case. We should be meeting them where they are at.”

States are also looking at ways to help reduce digital inequities in learning.

According to California’s 2021-2022 budget, $6 billion was allocated to expand broadband infrastructure by connecting homes in remote areas to stronger internet service in nearby hubs.

“It is as important if not more important in the current economy for municipalities to provide internet as it is for them to provide roads,” says Ben Motz, director of the eLearning Research and Practice Lab in the Pervasive Technology Institute at IU–Bloomington. “Nowadays, you can’t expect your citizens to be able to engage in society unless there is some sort of service like wireless or high-speed internet.”

More from U.S. News

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What the Coronavirus Means for the College Experience This Fall

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