by Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media, and Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

In Spring 2020, in response to the pandemic, K-12 schools and universities made a rapid and emergency transition to remote learning. In most places, this meant that continuity of instruction relied on technology, specifically, Internet-enabled devices such as tablets and laptops. And, despite a push for a return to in-person teaching, this remains the reality for many students. This reliance on technology shone a bright light on existing issues that students face in being able to equitably access their education. While these are not new issues–Noraya Razzque wrote about Confronting the Invisible Digital Divide in Higher Ed in our 2019 Digital Detox series–they have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

As we said in the introductory blog post for this digital detox, these inequities are not just a hardship for students, they are harmful to students. New stories and research articles have drawn attention to the lengths some students had to go to find internet access to “attend” class. To students waking up in the middle of the night to join live class sessions. To English Language Learners falling behind academically in part because essential communications for families were provided mostly or only in English. To students who lacked access to technology devices or the Internet being left out of their education. To disabled students facing not only the loss of essential (and legally-mandated) supports for their learning, but also a new crop of inaccessible technologies that, even with a laptop and Internet access, created a barrier to participation in their education. Low-income students experience more barriers to participating in remote learning than their wealthier peers; a Pew Internet survey found that “roughly 6 in 10 parents with lower incomes said it’s likely their homebound children would face at least one digital obstacle to doing their schoolwork.”

The shift to remote learning during the pandemic laid bare the range of barriers and challenges our students face at Middlebury as well. During the transition to emergency remote learning in the spring of 2020, a special task force was created to help address these challenges. The task force sometimes pointed students to IT for support for access to hardware and software, sometimes to financial services, sometimes the Disability Resource Center, sometimes to mental health support services. DLINQ made recommendations to faculty who were transitioning their courses that were focused on helping students who lived in distant time zones, who didn’t have robust internet access, or perhaps who needed more flexibility to complete assignments due to challenges in their new living environments (for many students, that meant being back at home, but for some students, it meant living on a friend’s couch or sleeping in their car). This work was responsive to what we were hearing from students about the hardships they were facing, but it was also largely ad hoc, and there were certainly students who fell through the cracks of the support we were trying to offer.

As we think about moving away from emergency- and pandemic-based remote education, we need to carry forward what we’ve learned about the barriers our students face, whether or not our students continue to take classes in online modalities. For example, after the transition to remote learning, many faculty have expressed excitement about video technologies that can support learning in their face-to-face classes going forward. Digital textbooks promise exciting features like social annotation and interactive simulations. Yet as we explore educational innovations made possible by a wider technology adoption among faculty, we should carefully consider the downstream impacts on equity for our students and proactively ensure equity at the course level and institutional level. With increased use of video in a class, we need commitments from faculty and support from institutions to ensure that videos are captioned, available and understandable in audio-only format, and fully accessible to students on a variety of devices and with varying levels of internet access. With adoption of digital textbooks, we need commitments from faculty and support from institutions to adopt low- or no-cost digital textbooks that allow students to retain the digital copies beyond the class (i.e., openly licensed textbooks).

We can approach this work with hope–hope that with a more widespread recognition of the challenges that students face in accessing their education, we can start to address long-standing inequities in education at a larger scale. And, tackling these issues requires commitment and conviction, because they can be time-consuming and expensive–making accessible videos is expensive and time consuming; finding open educational resources is time-consuming. Institutions need to be ready to invest financial and human resources into supporting systemic changes that lead to greater equity.

Take Action

Deepen your understanding of accessibility and identify small moves that you can take to make your digital materials accessible


Join communities focused on equity in education, such as Equity Unbound founded by Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, and Mia Zamora and the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice founded by Sara Goldrick-Rab

Keep reading!

The Switch to Remote Learning Could Leave Students with Disabilities Behind, PBS

Accessibility Suffers During Pandemic, Inside Higher Ed

Inclusive Design and Design Justice: Strategies to Shape Our Classes and Communities, Amy Collier