The Digital Divide Goes to College

At Youngstown State last week, we held a one-day institute on teaching with technology.  Faculty and staff spent the day talking about innovative ways of using technology to facilitate our students’ learning, and a keynote speaker, Gardner Campbell, challenged us to think creatively about how technology is changing education.  Among other things, he suggested that tools like digital storytelling and blogs can engage students in more active critical thinking and communicating and help extend their learning far beyond the classroom.  While participants expressed enthusiasm and curiosity about how they might expand their uses of technology, a side conversation kept popping up – a conversation about the whether we can fully use new media technologies when we teach so many poor and working-class students, for whom the digital divide remains a real challenge.

In my own divided professional life, with one foot in working-class studies and another in scholarship of teaching and learning, I have often felt frustrated listening to my colleagues touting ever more technologically-grounded pedagogies.  Predictably, many of those who most avidly develop and promote innovative uses of new media work at elite institutions where they have access to the latest equipment and software as well as support for innovative, technology-centered pedagogy.  They’ve heard me complain perhaps too often that I can’t do what they do, because I don’t have enough technical support, and I sometimes can’t even get my classes into computer labs.  Working-class institutions simply can’t afford to provide the quality and quantity of technology available at wealthier schools.

But, of course, the digital divide in higher education isn’t just about faculty access.  Access is an even greater challenge for poor and working-class students.  2009 data from the U.S. Census shows that the lower the household income and the lower the level of education in a family – two key measures of social class — the less likely people are to use the internet.  African-Americans and Hispanics also use the internet less than whites or Asians.  Given those patterns, it’s not surprising that working-class students, especially students of color, often do not have internet access at home.  Those who do are more likely to use dial-up services or to work on older, slower computers.

Colleges and universities try to address this problem by providing open labs and wireless internet access in college buildings.  But even with reasonably good technology available on campus, many of our students struggle to complete online assignments, access readings and other course materials online, or do projects using new media.  Why?

The obvious answer is time.  At YSU and many other urban working-class institutions, most of our students live off-campus, sometimes as much as an hour away, and most work, often 40 hours a week or more.  They come to campus for classes, and they have difficulty finding time to stay or to come back to access computers.  Often, the time they have to do schoolwork is the middle of the night, when campus labs are closed.

But even when they can find time to work on campus computers, these students come into the lab with limited experience, so doing internet-based assignments is harder.  They may not be familiar with the software or have enough experience to confidently figure it out on their own.  At YSU, the Writing Center is trying to address that aspect of the technology gap by offering workshops on the basics of word processing as well as how to use a flash drive and e-mail.  But for many, catching up digitally is a slow and daunting process.

Yet, as educational researcher Joanna Goode has argued, the problem goes beyond computer access and skills.  She suggests that by the time they reach college, students have developed a “technological identity,” a set of ideas and expectations about their own relationship with technology.  Students who have had limited access to technology before college may well come into the classroom, and even more important into the computer lab, worried about their own lack of knowledge and unsure about whether they can ever catch up.  Goode argues that such students need training and support, not just better technical access.

Even as some of our students struggle to work well with emerging technologies, others come with years of experience, expertise, and digital flexibility.  In a chapter in Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Linda B. Nielson identifies some of the characteristics of the “millennial generation.” It’s just one of many articles from the last decade telling us that today’s college students think differently and have different expectations of college, in part because they are – supposedly – so immersed in new media technology.  For faculty at working-class institutions, especially, that creates an even greater challenge: while some of our students are struggling with technology, others are much more tech-savvy than we are, and they want us to use technology more fully and more creatively. Finding the balance between the two sides of the digital divide – two sides that are growing further apart – remains a challenge, one with which we must wrestle even as we develop new ways of teaching with technology.

How are we to bridge this gap?  We begin, of course, with awareness.  Those of us who teach poor and working-class students must be mindful of the challenges some of our students will face in using technology.  And we must be prepared to offer alternatives.  That might mean accepting a hand-written journal in lieu of online discussion postings from a few students or providing hard copies of online resources.  It might also mean being a bit lenient on deadlines.  Our institutions could go beyond providing access to hardware and software on campus.  Some internet providers offer discounted internet access through educational institutions, and schools could rent equipment.

But as Goode suggests, we must also be prepared to teach not just the content but also the tools, including technology.  That can happen on the institutional level, through workshops to help students develop their computer skills, but some of the work will fall on the shoulders of individual faculty. If we want to use technology in the classroom, and if we know that some of our students are not fully prepared, then it’s in our interest as well as that of our students to help them.

Technology provides opportunities for more active, inquiry-based learning, and many faculty are excited by the possibilities.  We see how new media can expand our students’ learning opportunities, engage them in significant questions, connect them with authentic audiences, and help them develop skills for both professional and personal life.  If we want to embrace those possibilities, we must accept responsibility not only for preparing ourselves but also for preparing our students.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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11 Responses to The Digital Divide Goes to College

  1. Pingback: The Digital Divide Will Grow with Excuses | Cullen McCormick

  2. Pingback: Is there a digital divide among college students? | dmaule4uh

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  4. Brian Wells says:

    As a new(er) adjunct faculty member and academic advisor at YSU, I appreciate what you have brought to the discussion of student success. An earlier commenter mentioned technology proficiency for new students and I have heard many schools are turning to such strategies in an effort to identify students who may be at risk due to their (lack of) technological skills.

    When I am advising students into classes which I suspect (or know) may involve technology, I do my best to gain an understanding of their technological skills and, when necessary, ensure they understand what potential challenges they may face. Often, I encourage students to take coursework in computer literacy and utilize the computer tutoring available in the Writing Center prior to taking tech-heavy courses.

    As an instructor in Reading and Study Skills, I almost always have students who experience significant struggles. My students are assigned reflective writing assignments and they must be typed with 1″ margins. The accommodation I have chosen to adopt is to allow them to turn in a handwritten draft as a placeholder to avoid late penalties, but they must turned in a typed/word-processed copy to receive the points for the assignment.

    I look forward to greater discussion of these disparaties on our campus!


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  6. janevangalen says:

    Sherry, you posted this just as I’m doing some serious grappling with some of the same issues here, and I started just commenting, but realized that I’d exceed the limits of a reasonable comment so wrote a quick “think aloud” over at my blog:

    Would love more conversation about all of this. I’m trying to think not so much about “if” but “how” and trying to do lots of experimentation these days.


  7. Pingback: Bridging the Digital Divide in College « Education and Class

  8. Y. McCarty-Harris says:

    Dr. Linkon, let me first say, thank you for addressing this issue – your article in of itself is the awareness we need not only as faculty but also administrators. I have long argued that what sounds good may not be as good as you think; and that is why it is so important that we have diverse perspectives and ideas at the table when decisions are being contemplated or made.

    I was also listening to a segment on NPR and they were discussing this issue and the guy stated that another problem was that usually the poor and working class youth access the internet via their cell phones. This, too, restricted their access to the many educational opportunities that the web offered. i.e. research, accessing work assignments, etc.


  9. TLTroup says:

    Why shouldn’t the digital divide be addressed in the same way other education scaffolds are? If a student cannot test out of digital awareness, then the student should be required to take a course addressing digital awareness (course content would address proficiency in Microsoft applications, efficient internet use, awareness of legitimate sources, using online class technology, etc.). Even if the student dropped out after the first semester, YSU would have contributed significantly to their ability to navigate in the 21st century.
    While the time/access issue is difficult, it is also a factor in the level of commitment to a degree and program (loan money can be used to purchase a computer, foundations can be tapped in order to rent laptops to students). However it is very egregious for faculty to consider adopting antiquated accommodations that will ultimately dumb down a student’s experience and result in a graduate that is not effectively prepared for life in the 21st century. Harsh, but it’s the reality we live in.


  10. Sherry Linkon says:

    Offer alternatives that ask students to do — as much as possible — the same kind of thinking but in a different format. As I noted in the post, that might mean accepting a journal instead of participation in an online discussion. While I think students learn more from the discussion, I’m not willing to see a student fail because s/he can’t access the technology. A journal doesn’t give them the full experience, but the kind of thinking they do is sufficiently similar that I’m willing to accept that. I don’t, by the way, offer such alternatives at the beginning. I simply tell students that if the technology is an obstacle, they should see me and I’ll work with them to find a solution.


  11. My experience at YSU suggests that this is becoming less of a problem in my geology classes. For example, I no longer have students enrolling in my on-line-only sections and complaining that they can’t do the work because of computer issues.
    How do you suggest a faculty member address the “digital divide” and not open the door as a way that students can avoid doing work?


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