In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, which forced campuses to cease operations abruptly in March 2020. universities and universities began to rush to bring classes online, the spotlight was on a lingering digital gap in the field of education.

Many students moved from being in a position to use computer labs on campus as well as other resources for technology every day to having no broadband or laptops at home, which made online learning a challenge. 

When remote learning and work was the norm college campuses had to adjust to ensure that all students was equipped with the tools needed to be able to finish his or her classes.

What Is the Digital Divide?

“The digital divide refers to the gap we observe in the accessibility to technology that affects how different people in various groups can interact with technology or gain benefits from its sources,” says Jessica Rowland Williams Director of Every Learner Everywhere, a Colorado-based group of partner organizations that focuses on improving outcomes for students by implementing the use of technology to enhance learning experiences for Indigenous, Black, Latinx First-generation and other students who are impacted by poverty.

As compared with 23% households having less than $30,000 in income the majority of households with incomes at or above $100,000 have homes that include broadband internet including a laptop or desktop with a computer, a smartphone and tablet. Thirteen percent of people who earn the least are not able to access any of these devices at home, as per an Pew Research Center survey this year.

One of the main reason why families do not have reliable internet is the price of the service, which is $68.38 per month for the U.S., according to information from New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Others report that they do not require smartphones, according to Colleen McClain an Pew Research Associate who is focused on technology as well as the web.

“A large majority of Americans claim that those who don’t have internet access significantly behind in things like getting schoolwork completed, looking for work and so on,” she adds.

Digital Divide in Higher Education

“There’s lots of talk concerning the digital divide between the general population as well as K-12 students However, I don’t believe people realize that college students have a digital divide between their peers,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant vice-provost of research and assessments at 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. This trend is evident all across the nation.

Not all students or faculty member was connected to reliable internet, some schools like Lewis University in Illinois and the University of Kentucky used empty parking spaces and other public areas outdoors to provide Wi-Fi. In some instances the internet was accessible to the public.

As time passed schools such as Everett Community College in Washington looked for greater “permanent” solutions that would provide technology directly to students via loans of Chromebooks as well as hotspots. Faculty members were also able to remove certain devices from campus and utilize hotspots, according to Tim Rager, the school’s director of information technology.

“Pre-pandemic although there were computer labs in the school there were students who were working using their mobile phones,” he adds. “They were even able to type their papers using their phones. It’s a sign that there is a need for more accessibility for technology.”

The digital gap for higher education has become more “nuanced,” Williams says because it extends beyond the broadband and technology access gaps for faculty and students. This also applies to the disparities in confidence levels in relation to distance learning.

About 20% of students said they struggled understanding how to use educational technology, according to 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.

As it tries to overcome the challenges of digital literacy, EvCC plans to create opportunities for students to understand how to use devices and create documents, track scores and make multimedia presentations.

“In our world it is not just being educated that is required , but I would like our students to be knowledgeable,” Rager says. “I hope that our students can utilize technology to achieve their goals in life, as well as their personal goals. I’m hoping that the work We invest into and the work we accomplish gives them that base and platform to achieve this.”

Remote learning was not a brand new idea to a lot of faculty members. Prior to COVID-19 faculty in two-year institutions were higher likely to be having had prior experiences with online teaching as compared to faculty who teach at four-year universities as per the 2020 report of Every Learning Everywhere and Tyton Partners.

In order to adapt to the changing times, many instructors rely on online learning classes. For example, the United Negro College Fund partnered with Strategic Education Inc., for instance, to provide the four-week professional development program that could be offered to up to 1500 professors from traditionally Black schools and institutions and mostly Black institutions. The program is scheduled to last until the year in 2021.

While many colleges are returning to live learning attempts to overcome the digital divide persist.

In the fall of 2021, all new students in the first year and transfer classes at 8 participating California State University campuses received the iPad Air tablet, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio. Students can keep their devices until they graduate. This is part of initial phase of the California State University Connectivity Contributing to Equity and Student Success initiative, also known as CSUCCESS.

If a student at a college is unable to access classes, tests, or meet with friends due to limited or no internet experts suggest calling the dean, faculty member or a peer.

“Know that you’re not the only one in this struggle,” says Manny Rodriguez who is the associate director of government relations and policy for The Education Trust-West, a non-profit organization for educational equity. “It is not unusual and we can create a communities that can work together to solve problems … However, they must take on self-advocacy. This should not be the case. We should be taking them to where they’re at.”

States are also considering ways to decrease the digital gap in education.

In California’s budget for 2021-2022 the state allocated $6 billion to increase broadband connectivity by connecting remote homes to faster internet access near hubs.