Bridging ‘Digital Divides’ in Virtual Teaching

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Teaching Portal, Teaching Portal: For Teachers | 0 comments

We should not assume that others interact with the digital world in the same way as we do ourselves. In this post Dr Andrew Smith and Dr Mary Morrissey consider the challenges that many students encounter when required to engage with online teaching. 

As noted by WonkHE ,“digital poverty” means that many students lack the equipment, environment or connection to engage fully with online learning. Jisc, who surveyed over 20,000 students between October 2019 and May 2020, reported that “digital inequality represents significant barriers for students”. Some 71% of students reported lacking access to a quiet study space and one in five were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop, or tablet. Further, the Association of Commonwealth Universities highlighted that a “double digital divide” separated high- and low-income countries. For both domestic and international students, therefore, the problem of a digital divide is significant.


Asking students about digital access

Conducting your own anonymous survey with students might represent a starting point to understanding if problems with access to digital resources are hindering your students’ learning. Google forms will allow you to create an anonymous survey for free which should then work across most devices they might use. In your survey, it would be useful to include a free-text question that allows them to ask you questions, or to ask for further help if needed. We are grateful to Professor Jennifer Sessions (University of Virginia) for sharing her own survey design which helped shape these questions:

  • Do you have a reliable internet access and equipment that allows you to download documents (like handouts) and to post documents (like worksheets or assignments)? Yes/No/Not Always
  • Do you have reliable, high-speed internet access and equipment that allows you to stream recorded audio and video files? Yes/No/Not Always
  • What kind of device(s) do you mostly use to access your learning resources? Desktop computer/Laptop Computer/Tablet/Smartphone
  • Can you access support to use assistive technologies? Yes/No/Not Applicable
  • Are you the only user of that device? (Answer ‘no’ if you share your device with someone else) Yes/No
  • Is there a quiet space where you can study and can log in to online discussion classes? Yes/No/Not Always
  • Do you have other responsibilities during normal office hours / school hours (such as paid employment or caring responsibilities)? Yes/No/Not Always
  • Do you have access to a printer? Yes/No/Not Always

You could then investigate whether your institution has an equipment loan service (often operated through the Library, though sometimes also through IT services), and if there is any form of discounted or subsidised purchase possible (at times institutions may have negotiated discounts with suppliers and HR may be able to advise if these arrangements apply for students as well as staff ). This might then be sent on to the entire class/module with guidance, in order that students affected by a shortfall in access might be steered towards help. Where these services do not exist, it may make sense to raise this at the appropriate committee within your organisation, which might typically be a committee which exercises some responsibility for Library Services, Digital Access, or Student Experience.


Considering access in planning

We can act on these insights in the planning of our learning resources too. If students do not have access to a printer, they might find it easier to cross-reference teaching resources that are available in several short documents (that can be opened in different windows or tabs) rather than one long document (that has to be scrolled through). Video with high picture quality will prove harder to download for those with unreliable wi-fi; saving videos with ‘good’ rather than ‘highest’ quality is a simple adjustment.  Ensuring that documents are accessible (with images tagged etc.) and that videos have closed captions are good habits to develop.  You might also look to deploy low-tech solutions where possible.

Beyond these issues, the Jisc survey showed that “more needs to be done to develop students’ digital capabilities and confidence”. This too is something that educators can address in their teaching. Some students may find different channels of communication more effective than others and need guidance in using those effectively (such as clear and effective training for undergraduates on the form and function of emails, which can constitute an important skill to acquire for employability). Many may find code-switching and moderating voice between different channels of communication challenging (between social media, personal and professional emails, and so on) and this again is an opportunity for learning. It may be worth exploring if there are programmes at your institution to help develop digital confidence or provide further opportunities for training.

In our teaching and course design, we need to be alert to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, to ensure that barriers to access that exist in the physical world are not replicated or amplified digitally.

Capabilities and confidence alone are not enough, however. We also need to be aware that for some the digital world can be understood as a place of surveillance (or, indeed, sousveillance), as argued by Simone Brown in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). This may come as no surprise to lecturers perturbed to find the name of a widely used platform for virtual lecture delivery so readily recall the Panopticon. As Brown notes, these experiences can be strongly inflected by race, class, gender, or sexuality. In our teaching and course design, we need to be alert to the issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, to ensure that barriers to access that exist in the physical world are not replicated or amplified digitally. History UK has produced an excellent resource in the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook which can help when thinking about issues of access and course design, and the Inclusive Teaching project at the University of Leeds also has useful and practical suggestions.

As noted by the Association for Commonwealth Universities, addressing the “digital divide” will need financial and technical support coordinated by specific policies at institutional level. In our own teaching, however, we can seek to ameliorate or mitigate the worst effects of this divide by designing inclusive teaching. Likewise, by engaging with students honestly and respectfully on issues of access we can better help to build communities of learning in the digital world.

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