A digital divide, as described by Wilmon Brown in Learning in the Digital Age, is “an economic and social inequality regarding access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies.” Brown also notes that other factors, like cultural or social class differences, can be contributors as well.
One of the original digital divides traces back to when the internet was introduced in the late ’60s. Never mind connecting to Wi-Fi; simply having the items needed to gain access to the internet—a decent computer, modem, clear phone line—could be a challenge.
Fast forward to modern-day technology. We don’t show up at a friend’s house unexpectedly—we confirm attendance at events over social media first. We don’t call—we text. We don’t hit the reference library—we Google. We don’t pay with cash—we tap our debit cards.
While internet access is greatly improved—Pew Research shows that nearly 93% of adults in America are surfing the net—it’s still not nearly as accessible as it needs to be. And for a service that billions of people use and rely upon every day, the internet might as well be sitting right next to food and water on the shelf of basic life necessities. Just ask anybody who was affected by the nationwide Rogers service outage in Canada at the end of July.
Education is no exception to the digital divide. With many universities and colleges now offering online courses or a blended learning model, the digital divide in higher education is becoming an issue that can no longer be ignored.
Before we can charge forward into a more digital educational landscape, the pain points faced by students, like access to the internet or technology needed to succeed, must be addressed.
Equity and the Digital Divide
Although anybody can be affected by limited access to technology, research has shown that the digital divide can have a larger impact on those from minority groups or who have lower incomes. Research done on internet access for adults in America showed that 65% of respondents identifying as Hispanic and 71% identifying as Black said they had broadband access, compared to 80% of white respondents.
For those with a household income of less than $30,000, 57% reported having broadband access, compared to 97% of those with a combined household income over $75,000.
With the digital divide driving both accessibility and equity issues, it’s time for higher education institutions to start—or continue—supporting their students to be successful in a digital world.
How To Start Closing the Digital Divide in Higher Ed
While the digital divide will never fully be closed, there are proactive measures that can be taken in higher education to help make it smaller.
Broadening Access to Bandwidth
As previously mentioned, making internet access even more widely available is one way to help bridge the gap made by the digital divide.
While it’s tough for institutions to directly influence the reach of broadband, Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, said it’s something that institutions can be advocate for.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Dr. Sorrell’s college sent its students home with laptops and wireless connectivity points, but there were larger issues at stake regarding internet access.
“We couldn’t deal with problems that a municipality should have been dealing with. But what we could do was draw attention to the fact that even when you’ve created a bridge, there’s a gate at the other end of the bridge that we couldn’t control,” he said during the D2L-hosted webinar The Student Experience: Reimagined. “We needed communities to advocate, or we needed elected officials and cities to do their part. The best thing I think we can do as institutions in situations like this is work with the municipalities to find ways to make sure that the good we do is fully maximized, because all too often, that just isn’t happening.”
Aside from broadband access, having the right technology to do online coursework is another hurdle the digital divide presents in higher education.
In a world consumed by all things digital, it can be a challenge for students to enter a college or university program without a laptop or tablet.
For some students, the cost of tuition alone can be too much without the added expense of buying the latest technology to support their educational journey.
With blended or hybrid learning models in higher education on the rise, one solution is for institutions to provide the required technology for their students.
Some institutions have already started seeing the value in giving their students the tech needed to succeed.
In 2014 the University of Michigan created its laptop loan program, which made computers available for loan to lower-income students at its College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
In the fall of 2021:
- Eight schools in the California State University system lent over 20,000 iPads and smart keyboards to students, to be returned upon graduation.
- Virginia Union University worked with Apple to hand out around 400 iPads, Apple Watches and more to incoming students.
- Norfolk State University gave incoming and returning students over 6,000 Apple accessories.
It’s understandable that without institutions securing partners to support programs like these, the costs can add up. Another option that may provide an avenue to affordability is the use of responsive design.
As smartphones became more popular for viewing and accessing information, it’s become more important for information that was created for a desktop computer to look just as good in a smaller format.
Instead of creating several versions of the same design, responsive design allows designers to make one version that can adjust to various screen sizes.
For some students who may not have the best options for accessing the latest tech, responsive design is one way institutions can spread their reach.
John Baker, CEO of D2L, recalls an experience he had in India related to responsive design:
The Future of the Digital Divide in Higher Ed
There’s no end-all solution to the digital divide. From where institutions currently stand, being aware of the divide caused by technology and actively looking for ways to resolve it within their means is a great place to start.
Whether you start small and grow your plan over time or score a partnership that provides funding up front, proactively addressing the digital divide in higher education will lead to change.