Addressing the Digital Divide in Higher Education

The digital divide is often defined in terms of access to computers and the internet.  However, this definition of the digital divide does not fully capture the extent of the disconnect between people and the technology that makes information available to them.  While the digital divide—in the sense of technology availability—has narrowed significantly in the past decade, there remain a large number of people who are unable to make full use of the internet and its associated applications.  Thus, scholarship on the digital divide has shifted away from providing access toward discussing barriers to inclusion in the “digital society.”  These barriers are new forms of the digital divide that limit both the adoption of the internet and its useful usage by certain social groups.  Consequently, the digital divide has been redefined by van Deursen and van Dijk (2015) to indicate four types of access necessary for utilizing the full potential of the internet and its applications: motivational access, material access, internet skills access, and internet usage access.  These new dimensions of access reveal further divides between urban and rural communities, between majority and minority groups, between higher and lower income populations, and between people with higher and lower levels of educational attainment (Armenta, Serrano, Cabrera, & Conte, 2012; Cohron, 2015).

In the context of higher education, digital divides are potentially disruptive to student success with regard to e-learning.  The motivational access divide, the material access divide, the internet skills access divide, the majority/minority divide, and the high/low income divide are particularly problematic for educational institutions because they directly impact student success either by making it difficult to obtain the required technological resources or by inhibiting the full use of those resources.  In order to address these disruptions, a detailed description of each issue and its impact on students’ e-learning success will be provided along with strategies for overcoming them.  Despite the challenges presented by digital divides, higher education is in a position to correct many of their unfortunate consequences.  Instructors have a lead role to play in this corrective action and must work toward equity in e-learning as surely as they work toward fairness in grading practices.

The Motivational Access Divide

The model of access proposed by van Deursen and van Dijk (2015) features a definition of motivational internet access based on a person’s attitudes toward technology, both positive and negative.  Negative attitudes toward the internet have both direct and indirect impacts on a person’s material internet access, internet skills access, and internet usage access.  In other words, if a person holds negative attitudes toward the internet, then he or she will be less likely to secure the necessary equipment to access the internet, will be less likely to have developed the requisite skills for effectively using the internet, and will be less likely to use the internet productively (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2015).  Thus, motivational internet access constitutes a key aspect of the digital divide in that without a positive attitude toward the internet there is little that can be done to address other aspects of “digital exclusion” (Selwyn, 2010).

With regard to higher education, the motivational access divide becomes a pressing issue when students with negative attitudes toward technology enroll in hybrid or fully-online courses—a seemingly unlikely event, yet entirely possible due to students’ time and travel constraints.  These students begin their courses with additional barriers to success that are largely the result of the students’ avoidance of technology in their everyday lives.  While students with more positive attitudes toward technology are able to feel comfortable in an e-learning environment, and thus are more likely to successfully navigate the course from beginning to end, students with negative attitudes toward technology often struggle with issues of material internet access, internet skills access, and internet usage access.  For instance, a student who expresses a negative attitude toward the internet is less likely to have a computer at home, severely limiting that student’s ability to participate in the community of online learners.

One strategy for overcoming this aspect of the digital divide would be to encourage all students to express who they are socially online.  This expression might take the form of an introductory post on a discussion forum or a self-portrait—the possibilities are only limited by one’s imagination.  Building a community of learners through the cultivation of social presence could connect students with negative attitudes toward the internet to students whose views were more positive.  Using this strategy, institutions of higher education become an important diffusion channel for positive attitudes toward the internet and e-learning (Peng, 2010).

The Material Access Divide

The next item in van Deursen and van Dijk’s (2015) model of access is the traditional aspect of technology availability they term material internet access.  This form of access is not only concerned with the equipment used to access the internet, but also with the speed of a person’s connection to the internet (Cohron, 2015)—broadband connections being more desirable than dial-up connections because of their increased capacity for data transmission and, consequently, their ability to provide enhanced multimedia content to end users.

While this aspect of the digital divide is not the most pressing issue facing institutions of higher education—the vast majority of which are fully-equipped with a large array of computers and broadband connections to the internet—it is still an issue for certain classes of students, including the disabled, minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  The most important strategy for higher education institutions to pursue in this case would be to simply continue providing material internet access to these technological “have-nots,” thus bridging the material access divide for the duration of their enrollment at the institution and encouraging technology adoption in other contexts.

The Internet Skills Access Divide

The third item in van Deursen and van Dijk’s (2015) model of access is the aspect of internet skills, both medium-related and content-related.  Medium-related skills are the basic skills that one needs in order to use technology to access the internet while content-related skills are broadly conceived of as “literacies to seek information” along with the ability to strategically use the internet to meet one’s informational goals (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2015, p. 381).  Medium-related skills are primary and must be developed before content-related skills can begin to grow.

Knowing how to operate a computer and surf the web may seem like skills that are easily acquired by anyone willing to learn, but the distribution and depth of such skills varies based on the gender, age, education, income, and internet experience of the person under consideration.  Whereas men, younger people, college graduates, higher income populations, and those with more internet experience are more likely to have developed medium-related and content-related skills, women, older people, those who did not attend college, lower income populations, and those with less internet experience are less likely to have developed those skills (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2015).  Thus, the internet skills access divide cuts across a number of social divides that are only amplified in the context of higher education (Selwyn, 2010).

The strategy best-suited for addressing the internet skills access divide is one that requires the dedicated support of an institution’s administration and faculty.  In order to overcome this aspect of the digital divide, students must be taught the basic and advanced skills necessary for navigating the internet and its associated applications.  Using this strategy, teaching internet skills throughout a student’s journey in higher education would be the norm.  Each course taken by students could incorporate relevant internet resources as well as tutorials on how to access and use them effectively.  Internet skills could be practiced in computer labs with time for students to explore the technology at a leisurely pace.  And instructors could serve as digital mentors for those students who might need additional guidance.  The effect of this intervention on the development of students’ internet skills would be to help narrow the internet skills access divide, even if the intervention was not entirely successful.

The Majority/Minority Divide

The majority/minority divide is a social divide that comes into focus once access to internet technology is conceived of as a multifaceted concept.  Non-whites are disproportionately less likely to have the types of access identified in van Deursen and van Dijk’s (2015) model for a number of reasons: lower socioeconomic status and a deficit of digital literacy to name but two.  However, the rise of mobile computing—in the form of tablets and smartphones—has provided non-white populations with material access to the internet at high speed and reduced cost (Cohron, 2015).  In addition, access to mobile devices supplies non-white populations with a reason to develop digital literacy in order to make better use of those devices.

When considering the majority/minority divide in higher education, it is essential to note that there is a performance gap for fully-online courses that negatively affects minority students.  Non-whites are less likely to perform at the same level as their white peers and can expect their learning outcomes and course success to be negatively impacted by the fact that a course is taught via computer-mediated communication (Xu & Jaggars, 2011).  This performance gap can be traced back to issues of digital divide with the help of van Deursen and van Dijk’s (2015) multifaceted model.  In order to close the performance gap for minority students, it will be necessary to teach them “literacies to seek information” so that their usage of the internet is not determined by the means of access (i.e., mobile devices).  One strategy that could be employed in higher education contexts is to make available a mobile-friendly learning management system and mobile-friendly educational web sites.  By allowing for differences in internet access based on the type of device one uses, institutions of higher education would be serving minority students by helping them achieve digital inclusion, and thus inclusion in the currents of the nation’s social life.

The High/Low Income Divide

The high/low income divide is another social divide that appears in sharp relief when access to internet technology becomes key to successful participation in social, political, and economic life.  Those of lower socioeconomic status are generally less able to afford broadband access to the internet and thus are cut off from the benefits of digital inclusion.

This state of affairs manifests itself in higher education in the form of a lack of material access to the internet in students’ homes and a lack of internet skills for both retrieving information and creating content.  If institutions of higher education wish to close the performance gap for fully-online courses, then a plan must be put in place to provide these students with low-cost or no-cost computer equipment that can be used to facilitate their studies as well as their social presence online—and, of course, the training necessary to use such equipment effectively.  By employing a strategy of provisioning resources based on financial need, institutions of higher education will ensure that the high/low income divide is narrowed in the coming years.

Conclusion

In the model of internet access proposed by van Deursen and van Dijk (2015), the types of access presented are both sequential and conditional.  For example, motivational access is necessary before material access can be effectively addressed and material access is necessary before internet skills access can be effectively addressed.  By using this multifaceted model of internet access to explore the growing number of issues within the concept of the digital divide, it becomes possible to explicate the social divides that are amplified in the context of higher education by mapping deficits in types of access to social groups and vice versa.  The model also has the benefit of pointing the way toward solutions by focusing on factors that are remediable in principle.

Therefore, although the conversation on the digital divide has shifted in recent years from concerns about material access to computers and the internet to concerns about a wide array of issues related to different types of internet access and social divides, there is hope that the digital divide—even in this new and multifaceted form—can be overcome with careful planning and the judicious deployment of resources on the part of higher education institutions.  With the assistance of public libraries, institutions of higher education will play a central role in the narrowing of this new digital divide.  Useful usage of the internet can be taught, but it must be taught at the end of the process of providing access and not before.  If institutions of higher education are willing to take up the challenge, then there is every reason to believe that the challenge can be met.

References

Armenta, A., Serrano, A., Cabrera, M., & Conte, R. (2012). The new digital divide: The confluence of broadband penetration, sustainable development, technology adoption and community participation. Information Technology for Development, 18(4), 345–353. doi: 10.1080/02681102.2011.625925

Cohron, M. (2015). The continuing digital divide in the United States. Serials Librarian, 69(1), 77–86. doi: 10.1080/0361526X.2015.1036195

Peng, G. (2010). Critical mass, diffusion channels, and digital divide. The Journal of Computer Information Systems, 50(3), 63–71. Retrieved from http://www.iacis.org/jcis/jcis.php

Selwyn, N. (2010). Degrees of digital division: Reconsidering digital inequalities and contemporary higher education. RUSC: Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento7(1), 33-42. Retrieved from http://journals.uoc.edu/index.php/rusc/

van Deursen, A. J. A. M., & van Dijk, J. A. G. M. (2015). Toward a multifaceted model of internet access for understanding digital divides: An empirical investigation. Information Society, 31(5), 379–391. doi: 10.1080/01972243.2015.1069770

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2011). The effectiveness of distance education across Virginia’s community colleges: Evidence from introductory college-level math and English courses. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 360–377. doi: 10.3102/0162373711413814

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