The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in society, democracy, and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services (National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 2019).
When higher education pivoted to online learning in March 2020, the inequities in access to online learning came to the forefront. Research conducted pre-pandemic shows that digital equity in higher education is an ongoing global problem. Digital Equity goes beyond just having access to hardware, software, and the internet. It also includes access to meaningful, high-quality, and culturally relevant digital content. Students also need access to instructors with knowledge of using digital tools and resources. As early as 2004, researchers were concerned about how the digital divide would impact students in four areas: educational advantages, future employment and earnings, opportunities for social and civic involvement, and equity and civil rights issues (Willems et al., 2019). These concerns go to the heart of the definition of digital equity.
So how did the pandemic impact digital equity? A study completed in April 2020 concludes that students’ ability to succeed in a remote-learning environment differs significantly by income levels. Over 60 percent of students from lower-income households report not getting the necessary equipment for remote learning. Almost 35 percent of students from low-income families do not have reliable internet access. Over 55 percent say their home environment does not support remote learning (Kim et al., 2020).
I saw the issue of digital equity first-hand with our students at the School of Media and Public Affairs. Students in the undergraduate Journalism and Mass Communication program must take two video production courses to graduate. These courses are usually taught in a computer lab using the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite. There is an additional computer lab that students can operate 24/7, equipped with all the hardware and software they need to complete video and multimedia production projects. As you can imagine, when the university shifted to online learning, and the computer labs were closed, access to the appropriate hardware and software for those production classes became a problem. Many students relied on the computer labs because the operating systems on the computers were designed to run the Adobe Creative Cloud suite and their personal computers were not. This was an issue across the university, with many students relying on computer labs in the library and other areas to complete assignments and have internet access.
The lack of technical support was another issue for students. In June 2020, GW eliminated over 300 staff positions, including the dedicated IT teams for each department. As a result, students did not have the support they needed when they had technical issues in their online learning experience.
Faculty throughout the university were having difficulty pivoting to online learning. They had both technological and pedagogical issues. Many faculty didn’t understand how the software systems worked or how to transition the learning experience online. Equity and inclusion were an afterthought. The university provided training for faculty on how to use Canvas to teach online the week before the campus shut down. Unfortunately, the training was not required, and many faculty did not participate.
How do we fix this?
In September 2020, the university created a GW Cares program that was to be used by students for financial needs. Money for the program came from the federal government in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). HEERF provided emergency funding for students and institutional grants for costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the Coronavirus. This included everything from money for rent to cash for a laptop or internet access. SMPA also created a separate fund specific to SMPA students. Money for this fund was raised through alumni and a generous faculty member. Over $500,000 was raised and distributed to SMPA students in 2020 and 2021. This was in addition to any financial aid students received from the university. This was a temporary fix to a more significant problem. As GW continues to grow its online programming, more permanent solutions need to be developed to address these issues.
One suggestion is for incoming students virtual and in-person to receive a computer robust enough to run the programs necessary for their coursework. The cost would be covered by using restricted endowment funds to ensure that all students have the appropriate hardware and software to succeed. Online students would receive internet hotspots for the duration of their coursework. These endowments are restricted funds for goods or services that directly impact students.
In 2020, Bowie State University provided free laptops to incoming first-year students, transfer students, and returning sophomores in need. They also offered internet hotspots for any students who needed them. The university had a laptop loaner program for Juniors and Seniors in need. Other universities instituted similar programs across the country.
Offering tech support 24/7 to online learners is necessary for students to have a successful experience with online learning. This could be provided in-house or outsourced to the various companies that have started offering these services. Pre-pandemic, the University of Central Florida began offering online tech help when students needed it most based on helpdesk tickets. Ball State University staffs their helpdesk during the day and contracts an outside company to provide support after 7 pm.
Faculty Training/Cultural Relevant Content
GW’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement created a webpage in August 2020 for faculty on how to maintain equity and inclusion in virtual learning. The webpage has several links to outside resources. This was a good start but did not go far enough.
Creating a required training module for all faculty teaching online is a better solution. This training should include the technical requirements to teach online and how to develop culturally relevant meaningful content.
Another is providing faculty with other faculty mentors who are experts in online learning.
Using open education resources is a great way to share and exchange digital content with everyone. The University of Maryland Global Campus gives students access to no-cost digital resources that have replaced textbooks in all their online courses.
These solutions will take time and additional resources to ensure that all students have digital equity in their learning experience.
Bowie State University. (2020). Students get free laptops & internet hotspots to close the digital divide. https://bowiestate.edu/about/news/2020/students-get-free-laptops-internet-hotspots-to-close-digital-divide.php
De La Rosa, S., (2017, April 5). Wanted: Tech Support 24/7. https://insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/04/05/tech-help-online-programs
Kim, H., Krishnan, C., Law, J., & Rounsaville, T. (2020). COVID-19 and U.S. higher education enrollment: Preparing Leaders for fall. McKinsey and
National Digital Inclusion Alliance. (2019).Definitions. https://www.digitalinclusion.org/definitions/
Willems, J. and Bossu, C. (2012). Equity considerations for open educational resources in the globalization of education. Distance Education, 33(2), 185-199. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2012.692051