Underserved: Student Access to Technology

by Kristin Broussard, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

As higher education integrates technology more and more into its curricula, whether through increasing the number of courses taught online or in hybrid formats, or encouraging teachers to use technology platforms (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas) to organize their traditional in-person courses, technology has become a given in the higher education classroom. But are we forgetting a key component? Namely, can all of our students access this technology?

Research done by Dr. Stacy Gee Hollins (2017; see her full Prezi here) investigated the disparities in technology access for students in community colleges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that students from already-underserved populations (e.g., first-generation student, non-traditional student, low-income students, students from marginalized racial groups) had less access to technology and that lack of access was causing poor performance, failure, and dropping out from courses or from higher education altogether (Hollins, 2017). These “digitally denied” students lack consistent access to the internet or to computers, may also lack technology knowledge, and access to IT assistance to maintain and upgrade the technology they do have access to.  For these students, digitally based course requirements (e.g., online assessments, online submissions, digital communication) may be more difficult or even impossible to meet, putting them at a disadvantage for classroom success (Hollins, 2017).

Think about the requirements and design of your courses: Do you require students to take quizzes or exams online? Do students submit work digitally? Are course materials only available through online platforms (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Dropbox, Google Drive)? What expectations do you have for your students’ technological literacy? Do you expect they know how to use computer-based programs (e.g., Microsoft Office, email, learning management systems, online research via Google or library digital archives)?

Hollins (2017) recommends that teachers not only consider these types of questions when incorporating technology into their courses, but that teachers actually gauge their students’ access and literacy (e.g., through a brief survey on the first day of class) in order to identify students that may need extra resources or accommodations in order to fully participate in the course and to complete all course work.