Bridging the Digital Divide

October 21, 2020
Blog, Equity

This post was written by Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., the co-director of Environmental Studies, and the co-lead on the Core Pathways and the Enhancing and Transforming the Core Curriculum initiatives. Both core projects involve ways of bringing foundational learning into alignment with cutting-edge issues and challenges, and developing techniques for pedagogical innovations that foster student participation and heightened impacts.

As schools at all levels utilize online instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic, the push to embrace virtual learning has unfolded at an unprecedented scale. While some educators have been teaching online and many have used classroom technologies in varying degrees and for specific tasks, a nascent mass conversion of in-person classes to digital platforms in rapid fashion poses a critical design trial. At the same time there is an opportunity at hand for more teachers to become better conversant with cutting-edge innovations. This moment of necessity might spark adaptations that are long overdue.

Still, whatever gains may be had in the longer term, the short-term implications will be challenging. In particular, with the move to virtual learning environments, there is an implicit expectation that students (and teachers) seamlessly can avail themselves of pervasive digital connections in order to stay with the flow of synchronous and asynchronous classroom experiences. Yet this isn’t always the case, and even when access to devices seems universal there remain gaps in capacity, skill, and utilization. Despite the caricature of millennials and Generation Z as “digital natives,” there is actually a wide variability of digital experiences in this demographic. While a certain degree of digital fluency may be in evidence, the same factors that foster differential access to myriad societal goods are also at work in the virtual realm.

An ostensible “digital divide” correlates socioeconomic factors with technological access. Many lower-income households don’t have broadband, which impacts students’ ability to complete assignments. Technologies that are “nearly ubiquitous” among high-income adults are lacking in lower brackets. A 2018 ACT report looking at students with limited home access found that extant gaps “can perpetuate and even worsen socioeconomic and other disparities for already underserved groups.” A subsequent report from the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that geography, race, and class impacted home internet access both discretely and in combination. College students are also susceptible to these factors, with variances in online access, hardware, and conducive learning environments.

A 2018 study on technology and achievement gaps noted that in an increasingly wired world where information and technology are peaking, the digital divide centers the need to maintain connectivity. As with other instances of unequal access in society, this ability devolves upon preexisting disparities that accrue over the course of an individual’s journey. While access is critical, nuanced skills and aptitudes to fully utilize technology comprise one’s “digital literacy” and require instilling values of justice, equity, and inclusion at all levels. Schools can offer free or low-cost technology to students, but equal attention needs to be given to the sociocultural factors that both predate and reinforce current patterns. Moving to a virtual learning environment may hold promise as a workaround for the extraordinary moment in which we find ourselves, but it will be practicable only if the digital divide is bridged in the process.

Dr. Randall Amster

Dr. Randall Amster

J.D., Ph.D., the co-director of Environmental Studies, and the co-lead on the Core Pathways and the Enhancing and Transforming the Core Curriculum initiatives.