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Striving for Digital Equity in Higher Education

Updated: Jun 27

Mabel CPO Okojie, Mississippi State University

Tinukwa Boulder, University of Pittsburgh

Zoey Zhao, University of Pittsburgh


Keywords: Digital Divide, Digital Equity, Educational Technology


Key Statement: We discuss the complexity of the digital divide and the possibilities of achieving digital equity.



Introduction


The digital divide is a form of digital inequity that comprises complex interrelated problems requiring multifaceted strategies and solutions to achieve its opposite, digital equity. Specifically, the term refers to unequal access to digital multimodal technology, including smartphones, tablets, laptops, and high-speed internet (West, 2011). This unequal access creates a gap between those who can afford technology and high-speed internet to access web-based information and resources for their professional, academic, and personal needs and those who cannot. The lack of access and unaffordability, in turn, disadvantages and marginalizes people in their educational pursuits and ability to attain upward economic mobility. In this article we recognize that the inequity in technology integration is not simply getting access to technology or the funds to access the internet but also understanding how to select and use the tool to enhance teaching and learning activities. We also recognize the continued impact of this type of inequity on educational opportunities and experiences of under resourced students and communities.




Digital Media for Teaching and Learning


The importance of digital tools in teaching and learning cannot be overemphasized. As educators, we use technology and digital media to design and create learning experiences for different learning platforms and modalities (online, hybrid, in-person) and to develop students’ strengths, skills, and dispositions. We rely heavily on digital media and technology to perform our academic work and professional duties. We use digital technology to help us understand, examine, and acquire knowledge and skills to grapple with and address issues and problems in various contexts. In our increasingly technology-mediated digital spaces, we use digital media to define and reflect on our perceptions of self, others and how we interpret the world. Digital media is situated so prevalently in our lives that we maintain both a physical (analog) and digital self. As members of the higher education community (instructors, students, and other education paraprofessionals), we work, study, and interact in a largely digital environment.


Digital tools provide opportunities for instructors to facilitate pedagogical activities that stimulate students’ cognitive processes, such as attention, problem-solving, creativity, knowledge retention and critical inquiry. and. When applied well and equitably, the application of digital media in education promotes participatory and discovery learning, critical analysis, and creative and reflective learning. Creative learning stimulates students' imagination to question the assumptions made about knowledge, encourage students to take risks and venture into the unknown to examine different or new epistemologies. The idea is not only to allow access to tools to achieve basic learning outcomes, but to engender curiosity among educators and students about technology even beyond the classroom as a way to address personal and professional challenges.



The Impact of Digital Inequity


The virtual divide impacts different facets of lives by restricting equitable access to, for example, quality online learning, telemedicine, e-commerce, and the ability to maintain social connections with family and friends. Those most affected are underfunded and under resourced communities. This difference was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that limited access to online and hybrid education and other digital resources. Sanders & Scanlon (2021) state that “the role and importance of technology has become glaringly obvious in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where society has been forced to rely even more heavily on technology for basic daily living including accessing basic goods, maintaining connections with others, working from home, and having the ability to complete schoolwork” (p. 1).  


The digital inequality in higher education affects both instructors and students. Educators grappling with digital inequities do not have access to digital resources to develop and enhance their technological knowledge and skills. Students are unable to or have less ability to navigate digital environments in their academic and future professional experiences, thereby creating further digital stratification. Learning in a digital desert disenfranchises students by narrowing their horizons in terms of equipping them with the necessary digital and technology skills to navigate, study and work in digital spaces.



Next Steps - Striving for Digital Equity


According to Levinson and Geron (2022), equity in education ensures that every student receives the resources and support needed to engage in learning. The authors point out that equity does not necessarily mean that all the students will achieve the same learning outcomes but equal accommodation for learning is necessary. Levinson and Geron (2022) describe equity holistically, including not only the students’ academic performance but “social and emotional well-being in areas such as life satisfaction, self-confidence and social integration during their education” (p. 2).            


One of the requirements of the equity of needs is to engage in community outreach with underfunded communities to understand their unique technology needs and co-create strategies and solutions between town and gown. Community outreach could include:

  • Informal listening sessions

  • Partnerships with non-profit funding organizations

  • More formalized structures, such as grant funding


Another possibility is for government agencies to provide digital media subsidies to students and their school communities to enable them to purchase the necessary technology. The subsidized program could function similarly to free and reduced lunch subsidy programs in K12 schools. It would ensure that students from humble backgrounds have access to technology and learn how to use it for learning.


Some possible government agency programs include the federal TRIO programs, which provide services to students from poor economic backgrounds. TRIO is comprised of outreach programs that help students from less privileged homes. TRIO refers to Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Service. Middle school and high school, including higher education students, could benefit from the program. Teachers can encourage, support, and help their students seek funding to engage in technology integration programs to improve their ability to learn with technology. Schools could organize workshops during the summer months to carry out an orientation workshop to introduce students, especially those struggling with learning through technology management systems. The idea is to familiarize students with web-based teaching and learning and to provide students with experience in media-based instruction, especially those without prior exposure to online learning.  

 

  Notably, Paperdieck (2018) recognizes that more than simply having access to technology is needed to translate to successful integration and application of educational technology in the classroom. Instructors and administrators need to make informed decisions about the technology they select based on the students' pedagogical needs. Students are encouraged to learn how to use the technology meaningfully and troubleshoot technical problems that may arise. One approach is to involve teachers and education leaders in the decision-making processes for technology selection. This approach should be collaborative and dialogic, creating opportunities for critical inquiry about technology needs and how its integration supports authentic, meaningful educational experiences. Education leaders and teachers would ideally determine the technology training needs and activities necessary to prepare and support students rather than administrators or external entities alone. Teachers work with students closely, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and are in a better position to readily determine their technological needs than administrators who do not have direct contact with them. Teachers develop trust and rapport with their students, and as a result of the established working relationship, students are likely to be more open to teachers.


This approach allows educators and administrators to make technology decisions that apply to their institutions instead of an influx of exciting, emerging technologies. It is essential to consider the recent surging prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) and educators' attempts to keep up with AI. Meaningful and applicable use of technology should be holistic, community-driven, rooted in theory, and promote the practical application of knowledge and skills. Noakes (2022) asserts that technology training should promote "digital readiness and literacy among learners and communities" (p. 1) in different learning platforms.


Last, but not at all least, students also need help and support using digital media for learning. Educators often think that because students grew up in the digital age, they know how to use digital media for educational purposes, but this is often not the case. However, the potential of digital media in enhancing academic development is immense, and educators play a crucial role in unlocking this potential for their students. The strategies to address this issue are not complicated; they are practical and easy to implement. Including brief video tutorials on how to use technology for specific learning activities is helpful. Assigning low-stake tasks that allow students to play with technology can reduce the learning curve and tech anxiety.  Moreover, higher education institutions could develop and offer prerequisite computer literacy modules/courses to enable students to develop their digital literacy skills and reduce resistance to technology.

 

  Using games as part of the learning strategies could stimulate students’ interest and motivate them to learn. Games create excitement and promote active learning participation. Teachers, as the facilitators of this process, can use games to help students understand the concept of discussion and domain knowledge. A skilled teacher using games to instruct students should focus on the educational benefit and value the game intends to bring to the learning audience. Math video games can boost students’ interest and make math learning fun. English and review games are suitable for active learning engagement. Brainstorming games help students to generate new ideas for problem-solving. Virtual learning icebreaker questions can help students engage in reflective learning.



Conclusion

 

There is no blueprint for solving digital inequity. Striving for digital equity necessitates understanding under-resourced and underfunded communities' unique technology needs and barriers. Access to digital media and technology for education certainly does require financial resources, but that is only part of the solution. Understanding and selecting technology and digital media that meet their pedagogical needs is more important than responding to the need to purchase the shiniest and newest tech. Technological innovation moves at a fast pace that education institutions feel pressured to keep up with for fear of falling behind, thus exacerbating the digital divide. There is wisdom in slowing down and asking questions about the purpose and need to adopt digital media tools and technology. Technology trends for a while and then become obsolete, so engaging in a critical examination of technology needs can help us with strategies that are community-driven rather than being led by technology companies. 

 

Discussion Questions

 

  1. What could you imagine as consequences of the digital inequality for students arriving to your institution? Does the institution use technology in a way that might be difficult for a student with limited technological experience to navigate?

  2. Changes and advances in technology create new challenges and opportunities. How do educational institutions anticipate technology problems and opportunities? How do they grapple with or push against the need to keep up with the fast paced of technology innovations?

  3. Consider the digital divide within the context of artificial intelligence and education. What could you imagine as challenging? Are there ways you think AI could help bridge the divide?


References

 

Farias-Gaytan, S., Aguaded, I., & Ramirez-Montoya, M.-S. (2023). Digital transformation and digital literacy in the context of complexity within higher education institutions: A systematic literature review. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 10. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-023-01875-9

 


 

Sanders, C. K., & Scanlon, E. (2021). The digital divide is a human rights issues: Advancing social inclusion through social work advocacy. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 6(2), 130–143. https://doi.org/ 10.1007/s41134-020-00147-9

 

West, J. C. (2011). Without a net: librarians bridging the digital divide.  Libraries Unlimited.

 

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