the new digital divide on college campuses

It’s easy to look around a college campus and think – there’s no digital divide here. While waiting for class (or even walking to class) students pass the time by scrolling through Instagram or checking email on their phones. After class, students retreat to the library or to their dorm rooms to do homework on their laptops. These devices are ubiquitous to the point where some college professors have opted to ban them or relegate them to certain corners of the classroom.

And yet, despite that ubiquity, today’s college students are still very much divided along digital lines. In a new article published in the journal Communication Research, my co-authors—University of California Santa Barbara Communications Professor Amy Gonzales and Ohio State Communications Professor Teresa Lynch—and I argue that the digital divide on college campuses has shifted from one of technology access to one of technology maintenance. In a survey of college students at a large, midwestern university, we find near-universal ownership of cell phones and laptops. That said, we also find big gaps in the quality and reliability of the technology students own. Specifically, we find that students of color and students from low-income families typically rely on older, lower-quality devices that are more likely to break down over time.

In focus groups and open-ended survey questions, our respondents described the problems they encountered with their technology. They had to type their papers on glitchy, old laptops with missing keys. They lived in off-campus apartments without access to the internet. They ran out of cell data two weeks before the end of the month and didn’t have money for more. They couldn’t bring their laptops to class because they wouldn’t hold a charge.

For low-income students and students of color, those problems created real challenges. If their laptop broke or they lost their cell phone, they couldn’t just ask their parents to buy them a new one. And even for those with jobs, it could take months to save up enough money to replace those devices on their own.

Of course, affluent white students also experienced technology-related problems. They shattered their cell phone screens. They lost their laptops. They had problems submitting papers online. However, because of their resources, those students experienced technology problems as a minor bump in the road. If their laptop broke, they—or more often their parents—had the money to fix it or buy a new one. And the problem was generally resolved within a few days.

Now, given how distracting screens can be, and given research on the benefits of handwritten notes, it’s easy to wonder if students might actually be better off if their laptops break or they run out of data for the month. But that’s not what our data show. Instead, we find that college students who have older, less reliable technology also have lower grades and higher stress levels.

Essentially, problems with technology maintenance can make it difficult for students—and especially low-income students and students of color—to do their work, do it well, and submit it on time. Students need digital devices to access e-books and other required readings. Students also need laptops or tablets to type their assignments and submit them online. Even cell phones are becoming academic necessities.  Students text and use messaging platforms like WhatsApp to coordinate plans for group projects. They also use cell phones in class. Indiana University, where I teach, recently partnered with Top Hat to provide faculty with free digital tools for engaging students during lectures—but students need a laptop, tablet, or cell phone to participate.

Of course, it is technically possible for college students to get by without access to their own high-functioning technology. Universities have libraries and computer labs that students can use. In some cases, universities even have laptops or tablets that students can borrow. Those resources are important, but they won’t fully bridge this new digital divide.

Students can’t bring library computers to class. And even when devices are available to borrow, there’s reason to suspect that low-income students and students of color will be reluctant to request them. Sociologists like Anthony Jack, for example, have found that low-income college students and especially low-income students of color are hesitant to engage with faculty members and other authority figures on campus, even when they would benefit from such support. Similarly, in my own research on elementary and middle school students, I have found that working-class students rarely ask for help at school, because they worry (with good reason) that teachers will ignore their requests or perceive them as lazy or disrespectful for asking.

Consistent with those patterns, our focus groups revealed class-based inequalities in students’ willingness to ask professors for help in managing technology-related problems. We held separate focus groups for high-income and low-income students. In each focus group, we told a story about “Anna,” who was trying to write a paper for class and experiencing numerous technology-related problems in the process. When we asked what Anna should do in that situation, the students in our high-income focus group were quick to suggest that Anna should contact her professor and ask for an extension. Meanwhile, the students in the low-income focus group said Anna should not tell the professor about her technology-related struggles. As one low-income student noted, “That excuse won’t fly.”

The solution, then, should not be to expect low-income students and students of color to ask for help in dealing with their technology-related struggles. As Sociologists like Sara Goldrick-Rab have described, students from low-income families already face considerable challenges in navigating the day-to-day realities of college. And our own data suggest that technology-related problems contribute to the high levels of stress experienced by low-income students and students of color.

Thus, a better solution would be for universities to offer free or low-cost technology to all students or at least those who qualify for financial aid. Ohio State, for example, recently launched a new program providing each first-year student with an iPad Pro, a Smart Keyboard, an Apple Pencil, and a protective case. Other universities, including Indiana University, provide students with free access to software packages like Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite. The university where we conducted our study had a similar free software program, and we found no differences by race or income in students’ likelihood of experiencing software-related problems.

Programs like the ones at Ohio State and Indiana University recognize that digital technologies are critical for academic success. They recognize that even if professors don’t want students using laptops or cell phones or tablets in class, students still need digital tools to access readings, write papers, coordinate group projects, and submit assignments online.

Providing students with free, high-quality digital tools is an important step in bridging the new digital divide. In doing so, universities can ensure that students aren’t relying on old, glitchy laptops, second-rate software, or second-hand phones—the kinds of tools that are more likely to break down over time.

Of course, those large-scale, structural solutions require considerable time and effort and money.

In the short-term, then, I would urge college instructors make it easier for students – and especially marginalized students – to talk about their tech troubles and get the support they need. Following Sara Goldrick-Rab’s recommendation, I already include in my syllabi a “Basic Needs Security” statement that acknowledges students’ financial struggles and points students to relevant resources. For future semesters, I’ll also be including a statement (like the one below) on “Digital Access and Equality.”

Statements like these are only a partial solution to the problem of digital inequality. But they can go a long way toward helping students feel supported and seen. And they can help build a foundation of trust between instructors and their students – the kind of trust that marginalized students need to feel comfortable seeking support.


A Statement on Digital Access and Equality:

Digital devices (like laptops and cell phones) are becoming increasingly important to success in college. In this course, you may need digital devices to access readings, complete and submit written assignments, complete online quizzes, verify your attendance, take in-class polls, coordinate with other students regarding group projects, complete and submit group projects.

I recognize that some students are unable to afford the cost of purchasing digital devices and that other students rely on older, more problem-prone devices that frequently break down or become unusable. I also recognize that those technology problems can be a significant source of stress for students. Given those challenges, I encourage students to contact me and/or the teaching assistant if they experience a technology-related problem that interferes with their work in this course.  This will enable me to assist students in accessing support.

I also encourage students to be aware of the many technology-related resources that Indiana University provides, including:

  • Free on-campus wireless internet (wifi) access through the “IU Secure” network. 
    (For help connecting your device to the network, watch this video).
  • Free software (including Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, statistical software, etc.) for download and for cloud-based use.
  • Free unlimited, secure online storage through Box (a great way to back up files).
  • Free 24/7 support with issues related to IU technology (e.g., email, Canvas, wifi, printing, device setup, etc.).
  • Free in-person tech support at the Learning Commons in the Wells Library and in IMU room M089 (click here for hours).
  • Laptops and tablets that students can borrow from the Learning Commons in the Wells Library (click here for hours).
  • Discounts on devices from leading technology companies, including Apple, Dell, and Microsoft.

10 thoughts on “the new digital divide on college campuses”

  1. Some ways I suggest overcoming inequalities for students with technology is to use free open source software, in preference to software where a fee is charged. Course materials can be designed so they minimize the amount and speed of Internet connection needed, and computing power to utilize it. I have a four year old AU$300 laptop (running free open sources software), and an external monitor I found abandoned on the side of the road. With this I completed two certificates, a Masters, and ran several online courses.

    ps: It is a little ironic that Gonzales, McCrory Calarco and Lynch are advocating free digital tools at university, but their publisher is asking $36 for me to read their paper. Is there a free copy somewhere online?


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