A ‘new digital divide’ among college students

As smartphones and other mobile devices become essential tools on college campuses, a new kind of digital divide is emerging—separating students who can afford to maintain their technology from those who cannot. A survey of college students published in the journal Communication Research highlights gaps in the quality and reliability of students’ technology.

Those include “glitchy, old laptops with missing keys,” unreliable internet access, inadequate cell phone data plans, and devices that won’t hold a charge, according to a blog post by study co-author Jessica McCrory Calarco, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University-Bloomington. Calarco says that low-income and students of color, specifically, tend to have older, lower-quality devices vulnerable to breakage.

‘An essential work tool’

Whereas wealthier students are more likely to have the means to quickly address technology maintenance issues, those problems “can make it difficult for students—and especially low-income students and students of color—to do their work, do it well, and submit it on time,” Calarco wrote.

Inside Higher Ed notes that smartphones, in particular, “have become an essential work tool.” Students use their mobile devices to access e-books and other required readings, type and submit assignments, take photos of lecture slides, coordinate group projects, and undertake a whole range of other critical tasks.

“I would love to see anyone attempt college these days without a functioning cell,” tweeted Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor who advocates for greater equity in higher education.

Opportunities to close the gap

Considering potential remedies for the “new digital divide,” Calarco cautions against waiting for students to proactively seek out help with technology-related issues. It is unlikely, she says, and risks compounding “the high levels of stress experienced by low-income students and students of color” struggling with technology-related problems.

Instead, Calarco calls on universities to offer free or low-cost technology to students receiving financial aid and urges college instructors to consider adding a statement on “digital access and equality” to their syllabi.

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