At this point, few in academe are unaware of the digital divide—minority, low-income, and rural students and their families are severely restricted in their access to broadband internet connections and high-speed computing platforms. “…[O]nly 66 percent of black households, 61 percent of Hispanic households, and 63 percent of rural households had access to broadband, and one survey found that about 20 percent of college students did not have consistent access to technology, such as laptops and tablets….” As colleges shifted classes in March to remote delivery dependent on high-speed internet access, the impact of the digital divide became more pervasive. And it’s not like colleges were excelling in providing higher education access to minority students before the COVID-19 crisis—for example, The Education Trust recently reported that minority student access to selective public colleges has actually decreased in the last 20 years. What then can colleges and universities do to address former National Democratic Committee Chair Donna Brazile’s recent opinion headline in USA Today—“Don’t let online education turn into the next crisis that hits people of color the hardest”?
The Nature of the Digital Divide in the COVID-19 Era
Exactly what are the digital divide problems that disrupt remote learning strategies? They are numerous:
- Lack of access to broadband internet access from home
- Lack of access to internet technology beyond a “smartphone”
- Lack of suitable learning space at home (this includes private and quiet places to attend remote classes and to study but also space that is not potentially embarrassing to the student)
- Lack of adequate training to utilize and to participate in remote learning experiences
- Lack of one-on-one contact with professors to overcome learning hurdles encountered in classes
All of these factors have the potential of not only reducing the participation and completion of remote learning courses by minority students but even pushing them out of college altogether. A recent poll from The Education Trust and the Global Strategy Group found that 84 percent of black students and 81 percent of Latino students as compared to 77 percent of white students fear that they will not be able to stay on track with their educational programs and graduate from college. While there are numerous articles detailing the problems created by the digital divide and suggesting national solutions such as ensuring that all Americans have access to broadband, there has not been as much attention to the strategies that colleges can undertake right now to respond to the needs of digitally disconnected students.
Strategies to Bridge the Digital Divide
Most universities have undertaken the obvious strategies to bridge the divide. Schools have provided wi-fi “hot spots” for students without broadband access at their homes. They have provided Chromebooks and similar tablet and laptop technologies for students whose only access platform was a smartphone. Schools have even made parking lots available when campuses were otherwise closed so that students could obtain internet access from their cars. There are many other strategies, however, that schools should be employing. Let me identify just a few:
- Include asynchronous delivery and downloadable materials as important parts of every course. It is attractive to want to recreate the experience of face-to-face learning in a remotely delivered class. Unfortunately, this may not be the most effective pedagogical strategy and may actually accentuate the digital divide. Being available for a regularly scheduled class may be very difficult in home settings. Ten AM classes on campuses are very popular for both students and faculty members but Zooming into a 10 AM class from a busy home may be almost impossible. Some of our most effective online courses rely exclusively on asynchronous delivery. That is because these courses were designed to deal with the realities of part-time students who are trying to balance family and work demands with the pursuit of a college degree. This is exactly the situation in which many formerly residential students now find themselves. If the primary focus of a remote class is recreating the face-to-face classroom experience, it is likely to exacerbate the digital divide.
- When you do use synchronous experiences, provide flexibility and protection to students. Synchronous video and audio can provide a great platform for individualized and small group assistance. These sessions need to be flexibly scheduled. Furthermore, many students, and also many faculty members and workers, are concerned about the impressions that will be created by bringing others into their “at home” workspaces. Not everyone has a tidy office framed by bookcases and professional knickknacks. At college, students study in what approximates equal spaces. Students’ homes are very unequal spaces. Green screen backgrounds are readily available, however, on Zoom and other synchronous video platforms. It would be easy for a college to adopt a standard background used by all students and faculty members that would provide an effective, professional, and pleasant background while not putting anyone (students and faculty members alike) in the position of feeling that they were hiding behind a backdrop.
- Provide access to technology enhancing aides. As professors become more creative and experienced in dealing with remote learning, the nature of the technology that they will use to teach is naturally going to become more sophisticated. At the extreme, one can imagine science labs being conducted in virtual reality settings using high-end goggles and interface devices. It is unlikely that we are headed en masse into that environment in AY 2021. On the other hand, every digital enhancement has the potential of increasing the digital divide. Harvard has come up with a simple strategy. Every student this fall will receive a technology “goody bag” containing technology enhancing devices that are relatively inexpensive but which will allow faculty members to push the technology envelope of their courses. One example of an included item is an inexpensive frame that allows a regular smartphone to be turned into a virtual reality device. In total, the “goody bag” items will cost just a few hundred dollars but will allow access to and standardization of a wide range of technology enhancements.
- Expand the collegiate “protective bubble” into the virtual campus. Remote learning takes students out of the normal “protective bubble” provided by the college campus. While not perfect, the college campus is an excellent place to learn. For the most part, all the resources that one needs are readily available on the campus. Libraries and library staff are positioned to provide both a quiet place to study as well as access to all of the additional resources necessary to enhance the learning process. Support staff are available to deal with a wide range of barriers from mental and physical health to hunger. And, of course, fellow students and faculty members are relatively available a mere walk or free bus ride away. For three hours each week, students and faculty members come together in a comfortably appointed classroom for both formal and informal interactions. Remote learning breaks this “bubble.” Just like with all campus services, more successful and privileged students will be able to navigate remote access. This is also true inside the “bubble”—a consistent phenomenon at all colleges is that the grade point average of students seeking assistance at the tutoring center is significantly higher than the average grade point average on campus. We can work to bridge this divide remotely.
- Learning management systems provide detailed data about each student’s course participation. Some colleges have gone so far as to develop models from this data to predict student success in courses from even the first two weeks of class participation. In this remote learning world, faculty members should be very attentive to this data and utilize it to identify students with whom they need to intervene. Such interventions can markedly alter the success of students at risk.
- Broadly, intervention responsibilities cannot just be added to the faculty workload. In a recent conversation with a faculty member at a small liberal arts college, she told me about her frustration of lacking the detailed knowledge to answer and assist students across the range of issues that they have in this time of disrupted learning and college life. Investment in a “one stop” office where there is someone trained to find answers to all of the questions that students have can solve problems, decrease anxiety, and actually improve learning.
Unquestionably, increasing our reliance on remote learning in the past few months has increased the digital divide. In all likelihood, COVID-19 has changed the college environment forever. At some point—sooner, we hope—we will all return to a campus experience where face-to-face interaction dominates the learning environment. On the other hand, online experiences are likely a permanent and growing part of our pedagogy. From a positive perspective, there are many learning elements that can be executed more effectively online. On the other hand, each technology-based pedagogy that we introduce has the potential to exacerbate the problems of the digital divide. It is important that we be vigilant in dealing with issues of the digital divide as we adapt to various forms of remote pedagogy. This can be done; but as I have tried to illustrate in this blog, overcoming the digital divide will not be a trivial endeavor and will require deliberate and potentially expensive actions on the part of colleges and universities.
This is part of a series of blog posts meant to outline strategies for dealing with the mid-term and long-term implications of the Coronavirus crisis and our changing higher education environment. Let us know what questions and challenges you have about the future either by leaving a comment below or by contacting our principal consultants directly.
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