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The Digital Divide

August 12, 2016 Jabari Bodrick

Last week, I was unable to open a file on my computer that needed to be updated.  I right-clicked on my screen and selected the “details” view, which revealed the file I was trying to open had an INDD extension.  I sought the assistance of an IT person across the hall because I was not familiar with that file extension and what software program was needed to open it.  I was told INDD files are primarily used by Adobe InDesign.  After locating an on-campus computer with Adobe InDesign and conversing with an IT person about InDesign’s functionality, I used my rudimentary understanding of the desktop publishing software program to open the file and make the necessary updates.  I was able to find a resolution to my INDD file issue in less than an hour. 

While the aforementioned experience may seem routine to many student affairs educators, there are thousands of students nationwide who would have been at a standstill if they encountered a similar situation.  We live in a country with seemingly ubiquitous computing.  Laptops, tablets, smartphones, video game consoles, and wireless internet are a staple on most college campuses.  Unfortunately, the students who enter college without digital devices are at a disadvantage.  An increasingly digital collegiate learning environment has widened the digital divide.  At times, middle-to-upper class privilege prevents some student affair educators from noticing there are a number of students struggling to access digital devices and the maximal ways to use them.  The digital divide is not always glaringly obvious.  It is commonplace to see a classroom replete with laptops and students who have developed, in my opinion, an unhealthy attachment to their smartphones.  Student affairs educators, however, must be careful not to equate their cursory observations of students using digital devices with students having high levels of digital literacy and access. 

Prospective college students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are impacted the most by the digital divide.  The college application process, for example, has moved almost completely online and illuminates some contemporary digital inequities.  There are prospective college students who do not have reliable access to a computer or guidance from someone with knowledge of the college application process to help them research colleges and funding opportunities.  Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can seem like an insurmountable task to a prospective student with intermittent access to digital devices and very little direction on how the document should be completed.  Many prospective college students from low socioeconomic backgrounds cannot rely on their parents or guardians for assistance with the college application process because their parents and guardians know less about the process than the prospective student.  Sadly, the digital divide is a generational issue that continues to exist.     

The number of low-income and first-generation students enrolling in institutions of higher education continues to rise.  While an increase in the number of students from underprivileged backgrounds enrolling in college is a great trend, the digital divide persists for a lot of these students.  Low-income and first-generation students may not know how to use certain software programs or have the social capital needed to find out how those programs are used.  The proliferation of online classes, paperless campus initiatives, and digital books has made digital literacy even more important.         

Although the digital divide appears to be an albatross, I believe there are things student affairs educators can do to help close the digital divide.  Are you proficient in any software programs?   Maybe you or someone in your office could improve your students’ digital literacy by offering workshops on how to best use certain software programs.  Does your institution have the resources to loan digital devices to students for abbreviated yet meaningful periods of time?  If so, maybe you could spearhead an effort to establish a way for students to check out laptops, tablets, cameras, transcription foot pedals, and other digital devices.   You may want to propose extending the hours of libraries and academic buildings that have digital devices students use on a consistent basis.  The extended hours could benefit students who need more additional time using an institution’s digital resources.  The newly created Technology Competency Area calls for student affairs educators to “model and promote equitable and inclusive practices by ensuring all participants in educational endeavors can access and utilize the necessary tools for success”.  What equitable and inclusive practices will you bring to your campus to bridge the digital divide?