Digital InclusionDigital Literacy

Digital Detox 2.5: Confronting the Invisible Digital Divide in Higher Ed

photo of an arm holding a picture of a wifi signal in front of some trees
[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Noraya Razzaque, DLINQ Graduate Assistant

In higher education, the use of multimedia, technology tools, learning management systems, and the internet is so integrated in the university teaching and learning environment that student success is dependent on them. From registering and paying for classes, to obtaining course materials, to submitting class assignments and creating projects through digital means, the world of higher education seeks efficiency, innovation, and creativity through technology. Recording lectures, online courses, and virtual participation through video conferencing programs are all applauded as flexible methods to reach students who are unable to access higher education for wide ranging reasons such as distance and geographical location to family obligations. For example, Forrest College, a rural college in South Carolina, has invested in distance-learning technology as a solution for students who are unable to attend on-campus lectures due to difficulties in commuting.

While such solutions may be innovative, it is important to be exhaustive when considering who benefits and who is left out of these solutions. For example, to stream and/or download recorded lectures, students must have access to quality internet broadband. However, according to a 2018 Pew poll, close to a quarter of Americans living in rural areas have infrastructural barriers to high speed internet. An American Libraries Association report found “nearly 7 in every 10 residents on rural tribal lands remain without access to fixed high-capacity broadband and are cut off from educational and economic opportunities.” In general, rural areas are less likely to have extensive broadband infrastructures than their urban counterparts. This means that rural denizens have limited options for service providers, a feature that can drive up prices for high speed internet and continue to exacerbate internet affordability for low-income communities. Students who cannot access broadband internet will not benefit from distance-learning technology no matter how cutting-edge it may be.

Additionally, studies including the ACT’s 2018 report on “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity” have found that low-income students and students of color are more likely to face inequalities as a result of digital divides. According to this Pew article, “Lower home broadband adoption rates among blacks and Hispanics may be a result of multiple factors…blacks and Hispanics on average have lower household incomes than whites, cost may also play a role: A majority of U.S. adults cited monthly cost of home broadband subscriptions as a reason for not subscribing. Others cite credit scores that are often required by broadband companies as a factor.” This Government Technology article provides a more detailed breakdown of how demographic factors including household income, geographical location, and race are related to inequitable outcomes in terms of broadband access.

Are smartphones a solution to the issue of home broadband internet access? In some households, smartphones are the only or primary way to access the internet; a 2016 Pew research poll found that “one-fifth of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year were “smartphone-only” internet users – meaning they owned a smartphone but did not have broadband internet at home.” Similarly, adults living in rural areas are more likely to use their smartphones to go on the internet than through a home subscription to high-speed internet. A recent Insider Higher Ed article, “Smartphones for All Students: An Academic Equalizer in an Era of Income Inequality?,” suggests that smartphones have become necessities for students who may not be able to afford laptops or have time to do work at computer labs or libraries due to other obligations.

So, can higher ed depend on smartphones to bridge the broadband gap? Although useful, we should be cautious when promoting smartphones as an “equalizer” for students who depend on them for academic achievement. Smartphones may be convenient to utilize during bus commutes, to check email, write reminders and ideas in notes, and stay updated about assignments; however, writing essays and conducting intensive research on a smartphone is cumbersome and frustrating at best. For smartphones to be truly considered an equalizer, they need to be just as capable as a computer in terms of speed and efficiency to complete assignments. Finally, it’s worth noting that smartphones are not immune from gaps in coverage; in some geographic locations, including Vermont, it has been found that internet and data coverage does not exist in places where providers claim they have coverage, bringing us right back to the problem of access.

We may think of the digital divide as a problem only existing in developing nations, far away from our reach, when in fact it lives in our backyard; it is invisible to us unless it affects us. In 2019, the US is still struggling to expand internet access across the country. The students most affected by this digital divide are low-income students, students of color, and rural students- demographics that already face a disproportionate amount of obstacles to higher education. When we discuss the digital divide in higher education, we must first expand our definition of “access” to think more equitably. When coming up with solutions for the digital divide, we should always keep in mind that equality does not mean equity. It may be equal to all students to have the opportunity to participate in distance-learning, but it is NOT equitable if all students do not have the ability to utilize it due to internet broadband inequalities. In the same way, using smartphones to combat the digital divide may be useful in certain circumstances, but it should not touted as an academic equalizer.

So, what can we do to address issues related to the invisible digital divide faced by some students? We offer a few suggestions below.

Take Action

  • Consider students’ computer and broadband access when designing assignments; don’t assume that everyone has access to a high-speed internet connection at all times.
  • Ensure that critical course-related content requires only low bandwidth instead of broadband.
  • And, have a non-digital back up plan/solution for students who may not have access to internet and/or laptop/computers.
  • Invest in further research into the digital divide in the US context to inform education policy and broadband expansion.
  • Acknowledge technology and internet access issues in syllabi and address in class. Such transparency can encourage students who face difficulties from these issues to feel less isolated and know professors will work with them to come up with solutions.
  • Build in time for students to complete assignments in campus computer labs; or, devote some class time to working on digital assignments that require high speed Internet or sophisticated software applications.
  • Advocate for equitable, fast, and reliable Internet access with groups such as Next Century Cities or the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

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