Mar 29 2022

Understanding the Digital Equity Gap and Bridging the Digital Divide in Higher Ed

Broadband internet, hotspots and other measures can increase student access to digital tools.

Despite the prevalence of online, hybrid and HyFlex classes in higher education, course accessibility is far from equal across student bodies. Even at larger, wealthier institutions like Indiana University Bloomington and The Ohio State University, a significant number of students lack the technological access necessary to fully participate. With a third of low-income students and 25 percent of all students battling unreliable internet access, evidence of this trend can be seen throughout the country. Access to campus computer labs isn’t always possible, especially for off-campus students.

Higher education is home to a substantial and worrisome digital equity gap, a digital divide in desperate need of a bridge.

EXPLORE: 4 barriers to achieving digital equity in 2022 and how to overcome them.

Understanding the Digital Equity Gap

In 2020, investors poured a record-breaking $2.2 billion into education technology in the U.S. However, no number of iPads, laptops and other technological devices will solve the digital equity problem if they can’t be used as intended. Access to broadband internet is a necessary asset that shouldn’t be assumed or taken for granted. Without it, students and faculty alike may struggle to complete and turn in assignments.

“Our colleagues that are working in rural spaces, our colleagues that are working at tribal colleges, indigenous communities — the divide in broadband access is prohibitive,” says Mordecai Ian Brownlee, president of the Community College of Aurora. “Programs that would truly promote social and economic mobility are hindered and prevented due to the lack of infrastructure in these various communities.”

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For many, securing internet access throughout the day is an uphill climb. While libraries, computer labs and coffee shops may provide the necessary internet connection, they aren’t always accessible: Between work schedules and other obligations, the physical distance may be too much to travel, and their hours of operation may conflict with what a student or faculty member requires.

“We shouldn’t be hearing stories in indigenous and tribal communities of tribes having to climb to the highest peak within their respective areas and communities between the hours of 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. just so their children can access the internet,” Brownlee says. “This should not be happening.”

Brownlee goes on to say he believes this digital equity gap represents a lack of focus on national infrastructure. “What are we doing to ensure these communities are receiving the access that they need? The access equates to opportunity.”

DIVE DEEPER: Bringing connectivity to rural, tribal colleges.

An institution’s infrastructure is largely dependent on the infrastructure of the state in which it resides. Brownlee uses the state of Colorado to illustrate.

“Colorado doesn’t do local taxation. Everything is state appropriation,” he says. “And so, based on these various appropriations or local taxations, institutions can be prohibited from installing the kind of technology and offering the kind of accessibility — Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, you name it — for their students to be able to have this access.”

It’s a trying situation and an uncomfortable position for higher ed leaders to be in. Still, educators can do a lot to address the digital divide.

Bridging the Digital Divide in Higher Education

Brownlee and his colleagues at the Community College of Aurora have been purposeful in the terminology they use, especially the phrase “equitable student success,” and there’s a reason.

“Those of us that are in these positions now of educating this country’s future and its current leaders, we have to really ask the question, ‘Have we embraced disruption in higher education?’” Brownlee says. “What I mean by that is there are multiple ways to achieve learning outcomes. Historically, in the academy, we’ve in some cases too often taken a one-size-fits-all approach to the attainment, the teaching and assessment of learning outcomes. If people truly learn in different ways, people understand and interpret and communicate in various different ways. And as an overall body of educators, now more than ever, we must embrace the various disruptions in the economy and society that are happening around us.”

DISCOVER: 6 ways to close the broadband gap between rural and urban students.

Online, hybrid and HyFlex learning are all a part of embracing this disruption. By providing a variety of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities, students of all types and backgrounds are able to learn in whatever way suits them best. But first, students must have accessibility to this access. As Brownlee explains, you can’t adjust access without accessibility. They have a symbiotic relationship, and that’s something students can’t afford for institutions to overlook.

“It’s imperative that the academy embrace this ideology, to say there are multiple ways to get to the finish line,” says Brownlee. “Because if we keep doing this one-size-fits-all approach, we’ll continue to put up barriers for students. Those of us in the community college space, we’re open-access as a part of our mission. You can’t afford to put up barriers. It’s not a part of who we are.”

The Community College of Aurora is taking this seriously by continuously self-evaluating to best embrace the disruption of higher education and service their students accordingly. Leaders at the school strive to create pathways rather than barriers — and it’s been working.

Headshot of Dr. Mordecai Ian Brownlee
It’s imperative that the academy embrace this ideology, to say there are multiple ways to get to the finish line."

Mordecai Ian Brownlee, Ed.D President of the Community College of Aurora

Brownlee notes that prior to the pandemic, accessibility was seen through only one lens. Now, the school prioritizes identifying the multiple dimensions of access that it can improve, inside and outside the classroom, from financial aid to academic advising.

The Community College of Aurora just approved its nearly $2 million budget and is preparing to revamp its entire infrastructure. The school is ensuring students have network accessibility the moment they hit the campus parking lot. It is also looking into VPN options and investing in laptops and hotspots — which already have an extensive order backlog — to improve and ensure this accessibility.

“Now, it’s just not the assumption that, ‘Well, if they needed it, they’ll find a way here,’” Brownlee says. “They may not be able to find a way here. So, then, what does that look like for us to bridge that divide and improve accessibility for those we can?”

For Brownlee and his team, this means having conversations with civil leaders. “It’s having conversations with state representatives, local leaders, community developers and just always being that voice in the room to say, ‘Think about access. Think about the infrastructure so we can continue to improve communications and social economic mobility throughout our communities, so we can improve opportunities for educational access.’”

RELATED: Kent State University on building a network that is ready for anything.

Extending and Reinforcing the Digital Bridge

Bridging the digital divide will help students along their college journeys. However, if the bridge isn’t extended and reinforced, it won’t support the changes school leaders are looking for.

“It is disappointing that we have made some assumptions at our respective institutions around the nation to believe that if a student has made it to a certain point, all of a sudden the path is clear for them to make it to the next,” says Brownlee. “That’s not the case for people fighting to pursue education. They’re fighting to pursue social and economic mobility. Yes, education technology is amazing. Beautiful. Let’s keep evolving. But let’s also keep evolving in accessibility and infrastructure and closing these gaps in addressing these skill gaps.”

Many students, including the 14 percent of undergraduate students and the 8 percent of graduate and professional students at public research universities who lack familiarity with the technical tools required for online learning, are in need of upskilling. And as they upskill, increasing their digital literacy, they should be learn how to be good digital citizens.

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“Digital literacy and digital civility are two different conversations,” Brownlee says. “Literacy is key. It is huge. But we also need to ensure that curriculum includes digital civility.”

Using a term he’s personally coined and is working to unpack in his writing, Brownlee explains that digital civility is “this reality of care in the digital space. It’s care. It’s respect.”

“I think that now, more than ever, we must teach respect,” says Brownlee. “Respect in the digital space has been lost among society, and we must teach that along with limits.”

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