Advancing Digital Equity… Right?

It’s your first day of a new semester. You walk into the large lecture hall and look around desperatly to try and find somewhere to sit. Dang this 8 AM class. You knew none of your friends would take it with you. Ah! There! A seat. Not too close, not too far away. You head toward the seat, sit down, and immediately start unloading your gear. Cell phone- check. Laptop- check. Tablet- check. Alright, Mrs. Professor, let’s do this!

This is a common scene across campuses nationwide. According to a research study conducted by Pearson on college students, 89% of college students use laptops on a regular basis and “eight in ten (86%) regularly use a smartphone”.  Colleges and Universities are doing more and more to include the use of technology in their classes, but are they reaching everyone? How inclusive is the use of technology in their curriculums?

According to the newly published Horizon Report 2017 Higher Education Edition, “digital equity refers to unequal access to technology, particularly broadband internet”.  In that same report, it states that “the Center for Public Integrity reported that US families in neighborhoods with median incomes in the lowest 20% are five times more likely to lack broadband access.” This seems to be the center of a struggle for most Universities. Institutions want to increase access through the use of technology, however, there is inevitably going to be some students who do not have the means to gain access, whether it be a lack of hardware, the internet or other. But what to do?

The Horizon Report goes on to comment on government initiatives that are working to increase broadband access in rural areas and well as companies creating grants to decrease the cost of eligible computers to a low cost of $150. However, is this best way?

Where I understand a need to increase the connectivity of the world and agree that there should be increased availability to all, I do think there is a continuing repression of the lower social-economic class by continuously handing out free commodities. There are camps of beliefs that include that economic success is gained through hard work and patience. If we are to give certain students low cost to free technologies (access, computers, etc.) how much will they actually value these things?

Let me give you a personal scenario:

A couple years back I decided I wanted a class set of nice headphones. Like, I am talking that nice padded, noise cancellation ones. I fundraised for them on a crowdsourcing site and received a 24 of them. However, once I allowed my students to use them it became quickly apparent they did not value them like I did. They would not store them correctly, leaving the cords tangled. They would overextend them when placing them on their heads, breaking them. They would let them fall onto the floor, scuffing them.

This is not a single occurrence but one that sums up my apprehensions of giving away free things, like technology. Where I do believe something needs to be done about the inequity of technology throughout higher education institutions, I am not completely convinced giving away free stuff is the answer.

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