Digital divide front and center as COVID-19 amplifies disparities

In pushing education online, the coronavirus pandemic has “exposed a deep rift between the broadband haves and have-nots,” writes The New York Times editorial board, adding that “those rifts are poised to turn into chasms, as the global pandemic threatens another year of in-person schooling.” 

Calling the digital divide “a civil rights issue,” the Times column notes that anywhere from 21 million to 42 million Americans still lack broadband access, making it difficult for students in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas to keep up with online courses and forcing them to sometimes drive miles to get to a parking lot, restaurant, library, or coffee shop to log onto the internet. 

‘If you don’t have that connection, you’re pretty much cut off’

The pandemic has only exacerbated what higher ed leaders have known for a while: many students are woefully unprepared for a remote learning environment. “What COVID-19 has done is accelerate the pace of technological change,” Kathryn de Wit, manager of the Pew Charitable Trust’s broadband research initiative, told The New York Times. “Getting online isn’t an option anymore, and if you don’t have that connection, you’re pretty much cut off.” This is also evident when it comes to prison education programs, as many correctional facilities do not allow access to the internet. 

As W. Carson Byrd, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, and William D. Lopez, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Michigan, point out in The Washington Post, colleges need to ensure that food, shelter, and reliable internet service are a part of the reopening planning process. Students of color are more likely to lack access to all of these basic needs. “Universities should ask themselves: ‘What resources are needed to support students of color so they may continue their coursework during the pandemic as it amplifies racial inequalities in health, education, and the economy?’” they write.

In EdSurge, Mordecai I. Brownlee, the vice president of student success at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas, offers two recommendations for how colleges and universities can work toward closing the digital divide. Brownlee—whose institution is the nation’s only dual-designated Historically Black College and University and Hispanic-Serving Institution—suggests that colleges could help close the gap in part by restructuring tuition and fees to include the student’s technology needs, including laptops, hotspots, and service. A second strategy would be to create technology loan programs, where students could borrow hardware for the duration of their enrollment without impacting their financial aid.

Noting that the digital divide is poised to further worsen—especially for students in rural and low-income communities—as institutions plan for online and hybrid instruction, Brownlee says that “as institutions across the nation host a series of difficult conversations about how to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, they should also prioritize plans to ensure these groups have access to the technology they need to succeed.”

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