Investigating the Digital Divide During a Pandemic

New ACCT paper, "Digital Divide: How Technology Access Impacts Community Colleges Across the United States During a Pandemic," looks at the current state of the digital divide in the United States and how it is affecting community college students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of community college students across the country were forced to leave their classrooms and begin learning from home. This presented a problem for a number of these students as many did not have access to an internet-connected computer at home. Even if they did, they did not necessarily have a quiet space to complete their assignments. These issues, symptoms of the digital divide across the United States, forced community college leaders to quickly develop innovative solutions to ensure their students could continue their course of study without falling behind. 

The term “digital divide” is defined as the inequalities among individuals, households, and other groups of different demographics and socioeconomic levels in access to information and communications technologies. In the case of community college students, individuals across the country, in a wide variety of settings, can experience lack of internet access or slow, inconsistent or incomplete lack of access to a computer at home. Both of these issues present challenges under normal circumstances, but can make virtual learning exceptionally difficult during a pandemic.

While the digital divide is not a new phenomenon, it was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students who might not have had a computer or internet access at home could use these services on campus. For the majority of the 2020 calendar year, and at least through the first quarter of 2021, students did not have regular access to a campus or in- person learning. This caused community colleges across the country to grapple with the question, “How do we remove as many barriers as possible between students continuing progress toward their educational pursuits?”

For this paper, I interviewed leaders from community colleges in Spokane, Washington, Los Angeles, California, and on the Navajo Reservation to show what the digital divide looks like in an urban, a suburban, and a rural community and how it is affecting each college’s students. One bit of information that stood out to me was the success Spokane Community College District saw in their use of success coaches. Online students who connected to an eLearning success coach were retained at higher rate with earlier continuing registration than the general population. The average online student spring GPA was 3.12 compared to a general average of 2.68. An average GPA increase amid all the challenges of a pandemic is remarkable. 

While all colleges are faced with different circumstances, similarities emerge as the digital divide impacts students across the country. The paper also looks at how the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act impacted the digital divide within the community college sector. 

For more information on what community college leaders are doing to bridge the digital divide and how federal funding fits into these efforts, check out the full paper on the ACCT website. This is the fourth in a series of papers produced in partnership with Guardian Life Insurance. The previous papers focused on reskilling for the pandemic recession and recoverybridging financial wellness and student success, and recognizing prior learning for workforce development.

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