At the University of Kentucky, Heath Price (left), Associate Vice President for Partnerships, and Kirsten Turner, Vice President for Student Success, say the school’s device program improves access for students.

Feb 27 2024

Computing Device Programs Pave the Way to Digital Equity

Colleges and universities are investing in laptops, tablets and mobile hotspots to ensure underserved students have access to technology and the internet.

When first-year students arrive at the University of Kentucky, their first few weeks are a whirlwind of new experiences, from settling into their rooms in the residence halls and making new friends to exploring campus and adjusting to college-level classes. To support that transition and help them succeed, students also get new Apple iPad devices.

For the past five years, UK has distributed an iPad Air, an Apple Magic Keyboard and an Apple Pencil to every first-time degree-seeking undergraduate student. About 25 percent of UK students come from families that earn less than $25,000 a year, so the tablets are critical to their success, UK leaders say.

“We wanted to equalize the playing field for every student,” says Heath Price, UK’s associate vice president for partnerships, who helped launch the university’s Smart Campus iPad initiative. “This technology gives incoming students a chance to collaborate on a common platform from day 1 on campus, and in some cases, it may be the first piece of technology beyond a smartphone that they’ve owned.”

In higher education today, device access is no longer optional. Having technology that allows students to access the internet, take online classes and tests, complete coursework, and communicate and collaborate with their peers is necessary for a comprehensive educational experience.

Read this case study and learn more about a university’s one-to-one device program.

However, the digital divide remains an issue. The pandemic made the importance of digital equity more apparent to colleges and universities, as students without reliable devices or internet access struggled to attend courses online.

For example, with campuses closed, some students who relied on school computers and Wi-Fi had to use smartphones for their studies and sit in front of coffee shops for Wi-Fi access, says C. Edward Watson, associate vice president for curricular and pedagogical innovation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

In response, some universities and colleges launched laptop loaner programs and have expanded them over time. Others purchase devices for every student. Many of these institutions are also lending mobile hotspots to students who need internet access.

“The pandemic magnified and made transparent the various challenges students were experiencing. So, many of the digital equity initiatives we’re seeing now are responding to these new realizations,” says Watson, who is also the AAC&U’s executive director for open educational resources and digital innovation. “Many are trying to shore up the cracks in their digital infrastructure.”

University of Kentucky’s iPad Strategy Standardizes Technology

Since launching its iPad initiative in fall 2019, UK has issued 30,000 iPads to first-year students (an average of 6,000 per year). Today, every student has a device.

Before investing in the technology, UK’s Office for Student Success, IT Services and the Provost’s Office researched whether the school should implement a device program. They visited other universities with existing programs, spoke to UK’s deans and students, and determined that the cost was well worth it as the university strives to improve student outcomes, including increased retention and graduation, Price says.

That was especially true during the first two years of the pandemic, when students took online or hybrid classes. The iPad initiative came at the right time because the first-year classes didn’t have to worry about device access.

“Because of this initiative, our students had the technology at their fingertips to continue their learning,” says Kirsten Turner, UK’s vice president for student success.

This year, UK’s IT services team standardized on a 10.9-inch iPad Air with 64 gigabytes of storage, a Smart Keyboard that doubles as a cover and a second-generation Apple Pencil. The university pays to lease the tablets and purchases AppleCare extended warranty coverage.

The university standardized on the iPad because of its app ecosystem and affordability, and because the tablet, paired with a keyboard and pencil, is the right tool to help students hit the ground running, Price says.

IT services manages the iPads using Jamf’s mobile device management software. If a student loses his or her iPad, the IT staff can use Jamf to locate it, he says.

Students log in with their Apple IDs and can download educational applications such as Microsoft Office. Today, 87 percent of students regularly use the iPads to study, do research, access coursework and take notes and exams, university leaders say.

“Technology is embedded in every facet of our lives and work,” Turner says. “A lack of access to technology can increase learning gaps and decrease opportunities for many students. What the iPad initiative has helped us do is level the technology playing field for students from all backgrounds.”

Grant Enables Lincoln University to Launch Laptop Program

Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., recently received a $2.9 million digital equity grant from the federal government. The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program provided the funds for the historically Black college to improve internet access, equip students with computing devices and increase remote learning opportunities.

Lincoln, which has about 1,300 full-time students on its main campus, plans to provide each student with a laptop. This fall, it issued Lenovo ThinkPad E14 laptops to first-year students and sophomores who need devices. It also provides flash drives for storage, and it just launched a pilot for a mobile hotspot loaner program.

The technology is making a difference for students, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds, says Jeffrey Barlow, the university’s vice president of administration and finance. In fact, about half of Lincoln’s students receive Pell Grants. Some students are first-generation college students who can’t afford to buy textbooks, so providing devices that give them the option to access lower-cost or free digital textbooks is critical, he says.

As part of its digital equity effort, the university is also using the grant to upgrade Wi-Fi across campus, and plans to equip 60 classrooms with video cameras so professors can record lectures or allow students to attend class sessions remotely if they can’t make it to the classroom.

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Lone Star College’s Loaner Program Gives Students Device Access

Lone Star College, a seven-campus community college that serves the North Houston metro area, surveyed its 85,000 students during the early days of COVID-19 and discovered roughly 9 percent of them — about 7,650— did not have a computing device.

“We were moving our classes online like every other institution, so there was a strong urgency to address the digital divide,” says Butch Juelg, Lone Star’s senior associate vice chancellor of technology services.

In July 2020, the college launched a laptop and tablet loaner program using federal stimulus funds. It took five semesters to reach that 9 percent of students and equip them with devices, resulting in improved retention rates, he says.

“We surveyed the students again and found that they are happy with the technology. They felt it helped them be successful and encouraged them to continue on with their studies,” Juelg says.

The loaner program is still growing in popularity. This past semester, the college loaned out 6,700 iPads and 5,300 HP laptops, and the numbers increase every semester, he says.

The college’s software development team built a custom app on the ServiceNow platform to automate workflow. Students apply through the app, which checks transcripts to make sure they meet credit requirements for a loaner device. Once approved, they use the app again to schedule a pick-up time, creating a ticket that alerts the IT team, Juelg says.


Percentage of students who say they have access to the devices they need to succeed in school

Source: College Innovation Network, “Charting the Digital Future: Equitable Access and Attitudes in Tech-enabled Learning,” November 2023

According to Jim Crawford, executive director of the Office of Technology Services, the program helps students learn to use the tools they will see in the future that they might not have access to otherwise.

“Many of our classes use Microsoft products to teach their curriculum, and it gives the students a good base for when they move into the workforce,” he says. “Many of our students come from families that have some financial need. It seemed like the right thing to do to assist these students in reaching their goals.”

Overall, the loaner program encourages students to stay in school, Juelg says.

“If you’re a student who faces challenges, one little frustration, like not having a device to do homework, might make you want to give up,” he says. “This helps eliminate that frustration.”

Stimulus funds have dried up, so to sustain the program, the college is using its own funds to refresh aging devices every year.

“We’re working to eliminate all the little barriers that make students not want to continue their education,” Juelg says.

Photography By JONBOB

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