With the newly-implemented online class schedule, the digital divide has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students who don’t have access to computers struggle to get their work done.
The digital divide results in a gap between those who have consistent access to WiFi-capable devices and those who don’t. It also accounts for the uneven distribution of information and communication technologies.
The term became popular in the mid-1990s after a research report on internet diffusion among Americans found that migrant or ethnic minority groups and older, less affluent people living in rural areas have little to no access to WiFi-capable devices.
As blended learning systems became necessary during the pandemic, the digital divide has become more visible as students struggle to complete assignments depending on internet access.
How schools nationwide are dealing with the digital divide
Many schools across the country are working to ensure students have access to WiFi-capable devices.
In Detroit, several businesses and organizations are collaborating to ensure students in the public K-12 system have access to a tablet computer and high-speed internet access, according to The Washington Post.
This effort is known as “Connected Futures,” with businesses investing roughly $23 million to “immediately address an unprecedented crisis,” said Nikolai Vitti, Detroit schools superintendent.
Many states around the country are using similar tactics to ensure students have access to educational services. The state of Florida has been working with local internet service providers to supply free or discounted prices for low-income households.
That way, the state hopes students can access resources for public education while staying home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
However, these efforts don’t fill all the gaps.
In mid-April, many U.S. parents cited concerns for their children’s schoolwork. Roughly 29% of parents said it was “very or somewhat likely” their children would have to complete their school work from their cell phone, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.
About 21% said it was somewhat likely their children wouldn’t be able to complete their schoolwork at all, citing a lack of access to a home computer. Another 22% said they would need to use public WiFi to finish their homework because of unreliable internet connections at their homes.
Westminster College and the digital divide
At the onset of the Fall semester, Westminster College implemented a blended learning system incorporating both online and in-person classes. Faculty members largely depend on Zoom to host virtual classes — with students expected to join remotely.
For those who don’t have access to home computers, the Giovale Library initiated a program that rents out laptops to students for schoolwork. This program also applies to faculty members.
“With respect to the divide between students who own the most digital assets and those who own the least — Yes, we do see a digital divide,” said Peter Greco, vice president and chief information officer of Information Services.
Although Information Services does not survey students who check out laptops, Greco said the library has seen roughly 15 to 25 students rent devices “with some frequency.”
We have cobbled together laptops from pieces and parts that we save for repairs.
“Please know that we do not see that as a small number,” Greco said. “Even though we have been able to accommodate these students.”
This is an increase from previous semesters, Greco, which has required the library to “do everything we can to meet demand.”
“For example, we have reduced the faculty and staff loaner pool to augment the student loaner pool,” Greco said. “We have also cobbled together laptops from pieces and parts that we save for repairs.”
Greco said the school has not experienced a shortage in supply since the pandemic began. However, if one does occur the library plans to implement a waitlist system and shortened loan period.