Bridging the Gap
Charles M. “Monty” Roessel, president of Diné College, is heartened by his students’ drive, in multiple senses of the word.
Many students who attend the tribally controlled institution in the Navajo Nation—a Native American Reservation that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the U.S.—drive long distances to one of Diné’s six campuses. Roessel can rattle off examples of those who have driven 50, 65, even 100 miles (one way) to continue their coursework at a college that serves some of the most remote U.S. populations.
That was happening before the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Diné to temporarily close its campuses and transition to online instruction, like most higher education institutions around the world. This situation added extra educational challenges in a region where broadband internet connectivity is inadequate and cell phone service is spotty.
“Some students went back home to very remote areas of the reservation. [Wi-Fi hotspots] work in certain areas, but not in others. They’re sitting in a pickup truck on the edge of a mesa so they can access their classwork,” Roessel says. “We’ve got to do a lot more to make education accessible for those students.”
As the president of a rural, tribal institution, Roessel is all-too familiar with the digital divide, the term applied to a technology hardware, access, and skills gap with a disproportionate effect on low-income, minority, and rural students. These learners may face many challenges, including a lack of necessities such as food, housing, and running water. A technology disparity is one more barrier to completing their education.
Countless studies showed how the digital divide existed for students—of all ages and on almost every continent—before the pandemic. With most institutions forced into remote learning, the rapid transition to online education in higher education exposed this divide in new ways.
“This has really shed a light on the very serious discrepancies that exist when it comes to access to fully functioning equipment, and fast and reliable internet,” says Nicole Buzzetto-Hollywood, a professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and an expert on how the digital divide affects students at minority-serving institutions. “When we factor in socioeconomic status, first-generation students, minority students, the reality is that not all learners have access to technology nor the skills to use that technology effectively.”
This divide was known before. It is widely evident now. And it has spurred advancement professionals into swift action and collaboration to help bridge this gap in the short term and prepare for the future, which will likely include more online learning, new waves of the pandemic, and unforeseen emergencies that may require increased reliance on technology.
The Divide Before COVID-19
As technology and internet access became a vital part of the higher education experience in recent decades, certain types of students remained at the low end of the digital divide. According to a variety of studies, low-income, minority, and rural students are at the greatest disadvantage.
In 2019, the First Nations Technology Council in British Columbia, Canada, found that 75% of the province’s Indigenous communities did not have access to high-speed internet. In Asia, Freedom House research showed that more than 60% of residents in Vietnam and Myanmar are not connected. A 2019 report by the Chinese Internet Network Information Centre found that 40% of Chinese citizens lack internet access.
The U.K.’s connectivity statistics are better, yet a 2020 survey of university students discovered that 6-7% are without high-speed internet and/or sufficient computing hardware at home. Those percentages double among those who identify as working-class students. That disparity wasn’t as easily perceived before the pandemic took hold.
“The digital divide was buried because of all of the support we put in place,” says Andrew Ross, head of widening access and participation at the University of Bath, U.K. “We put in place libraries, learning environments, computer spaces [on campus]. Now people are to be working from home and in the future are likely to have elements of their education online. So that’s just exacerbating the issue.”
U.S. community colleges, which serve a disproportionate number of those most negatively affected by the digital divide, also provided workarounds via campus resources. In 2019 studies, Pew Research Center found that 44% of low-income households didn’t have broadband internet access and 46% didn’t have a laptop or desktop computer. In terms of a racial divide, Pew’s research showed a double-digit disparity between white households and Black or Hispanic households in terms of broadband connectivity (13-18%) and computer ownership (24-25%).
“There had been a lot of focus on making sure that the physical spaces on our campuses were equalizers that eliminated the digital divide,” says Karen Stout, CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that supports community colleges and the increased access to higher education they can provide. “Community colleges have been very intentional in creating student auxiliary spaces: gathering spaces with technology, campuses having Wi-Fi access, libraries being places where students can get access to laptop rentals or Wi-Fi hotspot rentals.”
Yet, access isn’t the whole of the divide. Researchers and experts acknowledge that, to succeed in education, disadvantaged students need to have the skills to use technology. As a fellow at the Informing Science Institute, Buzzetto-Hollywood co-authored a 2018 study that revealed a dearth of technology skills for students at a historically Black university—largely based on their experience with computers in middle and high school.
“There were vast inequities in what our students were exposed to. Some couldn’t type at all,” she says. “So, on top of a situation where [one student] had better classes in writing than you, you also don’t know how to type. It has nothing to do with intelligence or educational aptitude.”
Charles Darwin University, headquartered in Casuarina, Australia, went off-campus to address the digital divide. Experts estimate that 60% of homes in remote Indigenous communities lack suitable internet access. CDU serves more than 4,000 Indigenous students, some of them living more than 1,500 kilometers from the main campus.
“In remote areas where computer ownership is low, vocational students have access to drive-in, drive-out teachers who offer block classes,” says Ruth Wallace, dean of the university’s College of Indigenous Futures Arts and Society.
When social distancing requirements forced in-person classes to be replaced with online instruction, that method also was forced into hiatus and many students in remote locations deferred their education in spring 2020.
A New Spotlight on the Disparity
With institutional workarounds diminished or eliminated due to the move to remote learning amid COVID-19, students who were already disadvantaged, from a technology standpoint, became more vulnerable. Smartphones proved challenging tools for writing a research paper. Pay-as-you-go cell service was costly for Zoom lecture attendees. Internet access turned into a Wi-Fi hunt.
“You can’t go to campus. You can’t go to the library. You can’t even go to Starbucks,” says Michael Fuller, executive director of institutional advancement for the Foundation for the Los Angeles Community Colleges. “It peeled back the cover. It drove home the access limitations for low-income populations.”
Fuller and his fellow advancement professionals around the world worked quickly to help fill the immediate technology gaps at institutions with large numbers of disadvantaged students. They drew on existing emergency student aid funds, then appealed to donors and alumni for more support. They disbursed emergency government funding—such as the assistance provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in the U.S.—and teamed with nonprofit partners to keep students connected. They secured permission to reallocate corporate sponsorships, event money, and government grant funding to best serve students’ technology (and other) needs.
The Los Angeles Community College District serves nearly 230,000 students across nine colleges. With the foundation’s support, LACCD managed to deliver more than 11,000 laptops to students in between late March and early June 2020. By way of an existing laptop-providing program (spearheaded by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti for promise students), the foundation’s team worked tirelessly to satisfy at least 90% of student applications.
Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland, U.S., moved funds originally planned for events (canceled due to the pandemic) to students. The college and its foundation distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars, including 466 technology vouchers for laptops and webcams.
Emergency aid funds proved critical to institutions such as the University of Bath, which Ross says raised £50,000 for the fund. The advancement team at the University of Houston Downtown, which serves an urban, largely minority student population, used money from the Gator Emergency Fund and collaborated with its information technology department to provide 485 pieces of hardware, according to Johanna Wolfe, vice president for advancement and university relations.
At Dillard University, a historically Black institution in New Orleans, emergency funds were used to provide laptops and assist with internet connectivity.
“What we learned was that a lot of our students have laptops, but their families went through great sacrifices to get those laptops,” says Marc A. Barnes, vice president of institutional advancement. “Internet at home for them is not a necessity; that’s a luxury. And it’s a luxury that many of them simply could not afford.”
At another historically Black university, Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, U.S., the advancement and information technology services teams learned that the issue wasn’t just cost but the availability of an internet service provider in rural counties. While the institution’s advancement division provided funds, the ITS chairman advocated for students by contacting providers to ensure a connection, according to Harriet Davis, interim vice chancellor for university advancement.
Institutions also looked for simple solutions with minimal costs. Australia’s CDU opened computer labs, with appropriate hygienic guidelines, to Indigenous students and provided increased support for engagement with online classes. Sierra College in Rocklin, California, U.S., maximized its laptop loaner program. So did Diné College, which prioritized students closest to graduation.
While some of these responses will provide long-term support, many were temporary solutions to get students through a couple of months of learning. Loaned hotspots, a few months of internet service, and parking lot Wi-Fi are not going to bridge the year-round divide for disadvantaged students.
“That’s a Band-aid approach,” says Diné’s Roessel. “We need to make sure we don’t just solve today’s problem. We need to try to look a little further down the road to try to solve some of these systemic issues.”
A Responsibility to Do More
Although the suffering and loss of life from COVID-19 are devastating and the spring 2020 semester was challenging from a technological standpoint, education experts and advancement personnel are hopeful when it comes to narrowing the digital divide.
“Institutions should be investing in a thorough examination of the technological literacy of their students,” Buzzetto-Hollywood says. “I think this is going to be a turning point for higher ed.”
The short-term struggles of the spring helped inspire a long-term solution for this fall (and beyond) at Fayetteville State University. The institution’s advancement shop partnered with an anonymous donor to provide laptops for the entire class of 2024: 700 students.
“We want to make certain the device is something they can use throughout their matriculation at FSU, so they can perform their educational responsibilities as a student,” Davis says. “If they have to leave in the middle of the fall semester [due to an outbreak], we wanted to ensure that it would carry them forward and not lose any time with their online classroom delivery.”
Davis is hoping to sustain the program with new laptops and new donors in subsequent years. FSU is partnering with an outside vendor to deliver hardware and provide technical support to students. Davis approached one of the vendors via an alumni connection—another way advancement demonstrates how it leverages relationships, she says.
Those external collaborations are critical to closing the divide, according to advancement professionals. Dillard University’s Barnes says it is important to communicate to donors how technology is interwoven into student success. But it goes beyond that.
“I look at advancement as more than fundraising. Advancement means being connected to the community and the government. People in advancement need to be in the communities, talking to K-12 organizations and schools, talking to government,” he says. “Advancement professionals really have a role to play in this because we are the ones who connect the institutions with the communities.”
In England, the University of Bath is taking a wider view, teaming with multiple third-party organizations in its Widening Participation program to build support for disadvantaged students as they approach university age. Ross would like to see the U.K. government provide a more robust assistance as well.
Achieving the Dream’s Stout feels the same way about U.S. governmental support for broadband access in rural areas. She says an “affordable, national broadband agenda” is crucial to students who don’t hail from urban centers.
The students, staff, and faculty at Diné College know this as much as anyone, which is why Roessel says the college used some of the CARES Act funding to strengthen its Wi-Fi at all campuses and is creating remote learning centers to cut down on transportation time and enhance student access.
Roessel and others suggest that institutions need to look inward as well, because many of the success stories from the spring pointed to internal collaboration between advancement and administration, IT, and student services.
The University of Houston Downtown’s Wolfe says she’s considering another collaboration with the IT department to reserve laptops that can be refurbished over the next 12 to 18 months and provided to students, depending on when university campuses are closed due to health concerns.
“We have had a program where we allow students to purchase used computers at a reduced price,” she says. “Looking forward, that would be the natural thing to take a look at.”
CDU’s advancement office isn’t as established as others around the world, according to Andrew Everett, deputy vice chancellor and vice president of global strategy and advancement. He’s looking to grow the team, in part, to better assist Indigenous Australians.
“The general community in the Northern Territory is very supportive of the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including contributing money and resources to improve levels of education,” he says. “Our advancement team will be facilitating the provision of these items to our students in isolated communities.”
Stout sees an opportunity for advancement personnel at community colleges to work more closely with student intake data to better identify students before a situation occurs that prompts them to request help.
“From a philanthropy perspective, sometimes it’s only a small amount of money: US$400 could be the difference between a student making it and a student stopping out. That just means the advancement team being in deep, deep partnership with intake systems,” she says about intake questions regarding technology and other needs. “It’s important to get that information in the hands of the advancement office as a triage team to think about the holistic support that the student needs.”
The University of Bath’s Ross says that, no matter what actions are taken, there’s no excuse for regression with the digital divide so evident.
“If we end up just muddling along through the next few months, but nothing changes, that would be a real opportunity missed,” he says. “It would be great to think that we did something to address social mobility here.”
Davis, at FSU, emphasizes the importance of preparation, given what institutions now understand about the technology divide among their most vulnerable students.
“We have to be nimble and flexible for what may come,” she says. “The way to do that is to have as much technology available to our students, faculty, and staff as possible.”
When considering the future, Diné College’s Roessel wants to reframe the idea of a “divide” because he says that phrase implies that both sides must work to come together. He thinks that most students are already holding up their end. It’s up to institutions, and those who support them, to improve.
“You hate to say that there’s an opportunity when so many are suffering and so many have died. I like to say we have a responsibility to think of things differently,” he says. “We have a responsibility to those who have suffered, or worse, that we’re not just going to do the same old.”
The Future of Education?
Experts discuss what they’ve learned from a forced transition to online learning
The speed at which colleges and universities around the world transitioned to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic was nearly matched by how quickly journalists and pundits began theorizing about the situation’s long-term impact on higher education.
While some were focused on the future, Michelle D. Miller, a psychology professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, U.S., was writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education about specific takeaways from the spring 2020 semester. She described the hard work involved and praised those who supported teachers and students (instructional design and educational technology staff, among others).
“There’s an undercurrent of misunderstanding that when we go online, it’s like you can buy a pair of shoes at a brick-and-mortar store or you can get them from Amazon and it’s the same thing,” she says. “Learning is not like that. Going to online learning in a sophisticated way takes effort and time and training and talent.”
For better or worse, Miller says the viability of online education shouldn’t be assessed by the “emergency remote teaching” that happened in the spring. James M. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S. (who also has written about the transition for The Chronicle), agrees because he thinks it all depends on the student.
“There are students coming from so many different circumstances with so many different strengths and weaknesses that they bring to their education, you can’t just say that online education works or doesn’t work,” he says. “But we can make a great learning experience for [most] students if we really work at developing our online learning skills and have robust support for them from the institution.”
Lang and Miller each see the positive and negative ramifications for remote learning caused by the pandemic. On one side, many professors embraced technological tools and found new ways to engage with students. “The capacity and devotion that I always suspected was there is there,” Miller says.
On the other side, they warn that students and teachers (along with parents and staff) might have negative associations with online learning due to the circumstances, which includes a yearning for in-person instruction.
For those of us who are used to being on campus, the online experience often feels like a shadow of the face-to-face classroom environment,” Lang says.
Regardless of how institutions are approaching the fall semester and beyond, Miller thinks there’s an opportunity to make teaching less transactional and more human. The spring semester showed her “new ways of looking at teaching and the interpersonal relationship you have with students.”
When institutions can move beyond the pandemic, Lang expects the change to be gradual.
“I’m not convinced this is going to be the tsunami that some expect with online learning,” he says. “I do think more of us are going to use the technological tools that we’ve experienced in our online classes. It will certainly happen with me.”
Beyond Classes and Coursework
The importance of student access to home computers and powerful Wi-Fi isn’t limited to attending classes and turning in assignments. Advancement personnel discuss the other advantages:
Financial Aid: FAFSA and other forms are difficult enough to complete on a computer, much more so if a student’s only device is a smartphone, says Michael Fuller, director of institutional advancement for the Foundation for the Los Angeles Community Colleges.
Information Access: “The world becomes open to [students] when they have access to the internet at home. They can read more,” says Marc A. Barnes, vice president of institutional advancement at Dillard University in New Orleans. “There are so many things outside of classwork that are open to them.”
Virtual Mentoring: Like many institutions, the University of Houston Downtown moved many of its in-person resources such as mentoring and tutoring online, says Johanna Wolfe, vice president for advancement and university relations.
University Programs and Onboarding: The University of Bath has brought some onboarding and other programs to the virtual space, which requires a computer and a connection, according to Andrew Ross, head of widening access and participation.
Family Benefits: “In terms of students who have younger siblings, it may be that an opportunity to get a computer from the university also opens up another opportunity for other students and members of the family,” says UHD’s Wolfe.
Header illustration credit: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is the Communications Manager at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, U.S. He is a former CASE Content Creator.
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Mental health, resilience, and the road ahead: coping with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus enrollment marketing, combating the digital divide, and campus career services teams up with alumni relations.