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Bridging the Digital Gap Through Technology Innovation

Investments in tech infrastructure as well as faculty training are essential to navigate the equity implications of higher education's new normal.

college student working on laptop

Investors poured a record-breaking $2.2 billion in U.S. ed tech in 2020, appropriately coined the most disruptive year for the education industry. While there has been an uptick in investments, as well as the number of education technology tools available to serve learners and instructors, we're witnessing unsettling declines in college enrollment and persistence for underserved populations.

An imbalance in access to technology — often dubbed the "digital equity gap" — has been a key contributor to poor student outcomes. This imbalance is often invisible to well-intentioned instructors who perceive their course environments in different ways than students. Institutions of higher education must pivot to meet new learners where they are, while addressing the very real divide that exists (and yes, this requires steps beyond extending WiFi to the university parking lot). The equity "blindness," while not intentional, serves as a grave detriment to equitable student success.

While WiFi and hotspots are a step in the right direction, many students still lack the devices to access that connectivity. A recent report from The Education Trust-West, for example, found more than 109,000 low-income students in California do not have access to a laptop or tablet.

Our Roles as Educators to Bridge the Digital Gap

To remedy the digital equity gap, the first step is for educators to give their full commitment to access, equity, student success and the elimination of learning barriers. And institutions bear a responsibility to explore opportunities to infuse technologies and resources that do not require increases in tuition and fees. Furthermore, more institutions should adopt efforts to implement more open educational resources (OERs) — consequently, widening the door to student access and eliminating barriers to equitable academic pathway completion.

As universities switch to hybrid or online offerings, it's helpful for educators, instructors and administrators alike to approach this issue through a Maslowian lens, to identify basic learning technology needs for all students. Educators must weigh experiences of diverse and various populations as they ramp up infrastructure or switch to one-dimensional experiences such as lectures over video. Consider, too, the implications of lack of access to workforce development and technical education programs, particularly when in-person computer lab spaces are no longer an option.

2020 taught those in higher education the importance of approaching the learner experience through a design perspective. Educators have to pay greater attention to technologies that help us monitor learner progress and behaviors, not just the latest videoconference tools. It is imperative for instructors to reimagine how to build the curriculum to solve perennial issues, while advancing our teaching practice to reach a very diverse demographic in new and different ways.

What Solutions Are Working Today?

Institutions that have been resilient throughout the pandemic are those that have rapidly reoriented their technology infrastructure to deliver courses in an inclusive manner. This has been a crucial time to examine the types of systems we divest our resources from — what do we stop doing while looking for more efficient ways to do the work we need to do?

Cloud infrastructure, virtual desktops and virtual lab environments are all solutions that are potentially solving digital equity gaps for college students. This past year, limited access to physical computer labs and sufficient computer resources for students demonstrated the need for a better way to deploy technology resources. After all, the most innovative teaching and learning software is useless without reliable technology access that does not require in-person computer labs or high-priced personal computers. As a result, institutions are moving to provide "any time, anywhere" access to software and lab tools, to enhance the learning experience for all students.

What Will Continue Beyond the Pandemic?

The next era of higher education is already here. With little warning, and therefore little preparation, institutions, educators and students were thrown into wholesale change due to the pandemic. Moving from in-person to fully virtual teaching and learning (and institutional operations) has demanded profound conversations about pedagogy, the "classroom" experience and student needs.

Institutions will need to radically design and improve the technology to support synchronous and asynchronous learning. These infrastructure investments must be coupled with robust faculty training to ensure digital literacy of faculty and deployment of best practices. The skillset of educators will continue to evolve quicker than ever before. While unions will continue to bring forward concerns and challenges based on fear of capabilities and relevance, we must align on the needs of our students and the focus of our institutions.

Data is crucial. We will need to enhance the data environment so that educators can support students based on performance and predictable outcomes while investing in new methods and software that will support student coaching and communication. Institutions will continue to see a trend toward using help from the outside — new curriculum, new methods and licensing contemporary user experience content sources.

It is imperative administrators evaluate the footprints of our institutions and the utilization of facilities such as computer labs and dorm rooms. Along with facilities, there are typically long concentric circles of technology investments that continue to take space in our budgets beyond their use. It is time to sunset outdated technologies and divest while questioning new technologies you invest in — what are you trying to achieve with each program, what's the outcome, and how will you implement this solution?

About the Author

Mordecai I. Brownlee (vice president for student success at St. Philip’s College), Lou Pugliese (former EVP at University of Maryland Global Campus), and Greg Smith and Mohammad Haque (co-founders of eLumin) have more than 75 years of combined experience in student success and ed tech implementation in higher education, and are passionate about closing the digital equity gap to drive better outcomes.

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