Bridging The Digital Divide In Higher Education

By Benjamin Boivin

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Now more than ever, Internet access is critical to higher education worldwide. The global pandemic is just one example of how advanced technology can improve students’ ability to learn and provide solutions when in-class teaching is disturbed for any reason. There is no telling when, or how, traditional college campuses will reopen, but we can assume the online teaching format will remain in place for generations.

The Internet is getting better, faster, stronger, and more importantly, more accessible. As of 2019, it is estimated around 60% of the global population has Internet access, and 5G technology is sure to grow that number substantially. Every day on YouTube, users watch over a billion hours of video and generate billions of views. This tells us the future of video streaming is just getting started, as the younger Generation Z dominates the YouTube market. With the power of 5G, higher quality video streaming is the tip of the iceberg. Imagine a world where virtual reality (VR) dominates the classroom, where students can take a tour of the solar system in Astronomy 101, or dive into the complex human brain during Fundamentals of Neuroscience. The future is here with 5G, but first, colleges and universities need to prepare their students for a world unlike ever before by bridging the digital divide in higher education.

Make digital equity part of the enrollment process.

Set your students up for success by creating a level digital playing field from the start. Don’t wait for enrolled students to struggle with the on-campus digital network, and don’t assume all young people know how to use the Internet. Create school-specific portal information sessions while prospective students are in the early stages of the recruitment process. They can better understand the difference between higher learning and secondary school programs early on.

Take advantage of affordable technology.

USNews estimates the average college student spent $1,240 on books and supplies during the 2019-2020 academic year. While there is no replacement for the tangible learning benefits of ink and paper, ebooks and digital note taking devices are substantially cheaper over the course of four years. Institutions need to invest in updated technology and offer discounts to underprivileged students. By removing the added costs of books over four years (nearly $5,000) and providing loaned laptops with preloaded content, enrollment among disadvantaged demographics is sure to grow.

Implement digital assessment testing.

Language skills and foundational math proficiency are required before the first day of class, but what about navigating the Internet and using technology? During the mandatory first-year student orientation event, develop a technological assessment exam to determine which students could use additional training before the first day of class. Should another global pandemic shut down in-person learning, universities can rest assured every single student feels confident in the digital learning environment.

Add another tuition fee.

Increase your university’s Information Technology (IT) budget and stockpile Wi-Fi-ready devices to guarantee all enrolled students have access to laptops or tablets. Some families may think individual billable costs like “service fee,” “student activities fee” and “events fee,” are a shady way to get more money from students, but an increased IT fee is a necessary expense for any traditional (or virtual) campus.

As the Internet continues to play a more crucial role in students’ lives before and after earning their degrees, universities must keep their infrastructure modern and secure. While many students show up to campus on the first day with a brand-new laptop in hand, that isn’t the case for millions of students. Universities need to provide every single student a functional laptop on the first day of class, as well as justify the cost of a savvy, highly educated IT team to run the network and maintain stability in the entire campus community. Professors, students, and university leadership may be the face of the campus, but in our increasingly digital world, IT is the foundation of a solid institution.

Require an online course before the first day of class.

While Google plans to disrupt higher education with their new 6-month professional certificate program, college and universities are scrambling to integrate technology in the classroom. During new student orientation, universities can confirm every student starting college has a functioning laptop or smart device (either purchased or loaned by the school). Develop an online course and track student progress over the weeks before the first day of class. This pre-college model accomplishes two things:

  1. Train your future students to be self-starters and manage their time (and new independence) in ways most of them do not experience in the structured high school setting.

  2. Gauge online learning literacy and track progress.

Offer digital formats in every classroom.

Tradition, in-class professors have every right to run their courses as they see fit, but they should also make adjustments and offer options to the current incoming class of digital learners. If a $400 textbook can be justified in the curriculum, so should a $400 laptop. Removing the “required textbook” from the syllabus can help bridge the digital divide, and offer affordable solutions to their students. In addition to the ever-growing resources found on the Internet, most universities boast massive digital libraries exclusive to the students and faculty. If professors can make the majority of the required reading free links to websites and scholarly articles rather than textbook reading, they can save their students thousands of dollars for years to come.

After the pandemic is over and the “new normal” is a thing of the past, college students will be ready to get back to campus for in-person learning. The implications of 100% online learning during the study-from-home quarantine are yet to be determined, but it is clear that more professors and students are comfortable with the partially digital format after “training” for the digital shift in 2020. As 5G technology becomes the global standard, there is no telling what educational innovations will grow along with it. With enhanced digital connectivity comes stronger communication at a more affordable cost and accessible model. Ultimately, bridging the digital gap on university campuses and their virtual networks will enable students to do what they have done for hundreds of years: change the world.

Topics: Education Innovation online education

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