As the world continues to embrace digitalization, online learning and digital resources are becoming key aspects of the education system. This transition has brought the issue of digital equity to the forefront of our consciousness. This principle, rooted in the belief that every student should have equal access to technology, is gaining relevance in higher education. The focus has shifted from merely acquiring devices or internet connections, to ensuring robust access and the ability to utilize these resources effectively. This shift is critical when considering the overall success of students in higher education, and it becomes even more crucial when examining the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and first-generation students.
The digital divide, the gap in access and ability to use technology, can deeply impact a student’s academic journey. As technology becomes a core part of higher education, students lacking access can face academic difficulties. This issue exacerbates existing socio-economic and racial disparities, a fact made abundantly clear during the pandemic when campuses closed and access to university IT resources became limited. For BIPOC and first-generation students, who often face additional socio-economic challenges, this digital divide can be particularly wide and damaging.
Understanding Digital Equity
Digital equity goes beyond having the hardware and broadband access. It also includes digital literacy, which encompasses the skills necessary to use technology effectively for learning. These skills include being able to find, evaluate, and utilize information online, collaborate digitally, and use software tools for learning and creative expression.
For students, particularly BIPOC and first-generation students, digital literacy skills are crucial for success in nearly all areas of study. Those who lack these skills face a disadvantage, as they may grapple with online coursework, research, and collaboration, creating an additional barrier to their academic achievement.
The Impact on Student Success
The effects of the digital divide on student success are extensive. Research shows that students without adequate access to technology and lacking digital literacy skills are more likely to struggle academically. They may encounter difficulties completing assignments, conducting research, or simply communicating with their professors and classmates.
The impact of the digital divide extends beyond academics, potentially affecting students’ career prospects. In a world where digital skills are increasingly in demand, those without these skills, including many BIPOC and first-generation students, may find themselves disadvantaged when entering the job market.
Promoting Digital Equity in Higher Education
To promote digital equity in higher education, a comprehensive approach is necessary. This approach begins with ensuring that all students, especially BIPOC and first-generation students, have access to the necessary hardware and reliable internet connections. Initiatives such as loaner laptop programs, campus-wide Wi-Fi, and partnerships with local internet providers can help.
However, access alone is insufficient. Colleges and universities also need to invest in digital literacy programs. This could include integrating digital skills into the core curriculum or offering standalone courses and workshops.
Institutions should also monitor digital equity metrics to ensure the effectiveness of their efforts. This could involve surveying students about their access to technology, their comfort with it, or using analytics to identify and support students who are struggling due to digital inequities.
Digital equity in higher education is not just about fairness—it’s an essential part of student success. By ensuring that all students, especially BIPOC and first-generation students, have access to technology and the skills to use it effectively, higher education institutions can help level the playing field.
The pandemic highlighted the urgency of this issue. As our world becomes more digital, the digital divide in education becomes more apparent, and its impact on student success more significant. It’s time for higher education institutions to prioritize digital equity as an integral part of their mission—not just as a response to a crisis, but as a cornerstone of their commitment to fostering student success.
Ensuring digital equity is a collective responsibility. It necessitates action from policymakers, education institutions, and communities. It also requires acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges faced by BIPOC and first-generation students. Together, we can close the digital divide and pave the way for a more equitable, inclusive, and successful future in higher education.