There’s no room for complacency: act now to improve digital inclusion

Sue Bennett outlines a call to action for academics and institutions to recognise inequalities in access to, and proficiency with, technology among students and to help extend digital inclusion to all

Sue Bennett's avatar
University of Wollongong
29 Sep 2021
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Advice on how institutions should ensure digital inclusion for all students

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Proficiency with technology is critical to living well in a global networked society. Digitalisation will shape the future of work, requiring new skills and knowledge across all sectors. Technology has become essential to daily interactions needed for personal and community well-being.

Higher education plays a key role in preparing students for this digital world, whether they are school-leavers studying for their first degree or experienced professionals engaging in lifelong learning.

But we know that not everyone has the same digital opportunities. So, what should academics and institutions do to better understand the variations in digital proficiency among students? And how can they minimise digital inequalities and ensure inclusion for all?

1. Confront our preconceptions

Faulty assumptions can prevent us seeing the challenge of digital inclusion as it is and from understanding that we can and must make a difference.

  • Not all young people are “digital natives”. Ample evidence across the world discounts the idea, so it’s time to let it go. Technological skills, knowledge and dispositions among our students vary within age groups as much as among them.
  • Just because technology is cheaper than ever doesn’t mean that all students have ready access. It just means the goalposts keep moving. Access to high-quality connectivity and unlimited data remains a challenge.
  • Not all students have had educational experiences that enable them to harness technology effectively to support their studies.
  • Academics are better equipped to use technology than they believe. Many underestimate their skills.
  • Institutions often underestimate their staff and so don’t realise how much capability they have to build from.

2. Know our students (even) better

Despite all the institutional data collected, we know very little about students’ digital access and capabilities. This needs to be addressed.

  • When starting a new semester, use discussion or quick surveys to ask questions and understand digital access and capability within your class.
  • Conduct institutional surveys to investigate patterns across the student body regarding technology on campus: which devices are used and why, preferences for online tools, how students access help, and much more.
  • Bring together knowledge from units who see different parts of the digital-inclusion puzzle: teaching staff, departmental and faculty administrators, IT services, the library, accommodation and students themselves across various cohorts.
  • Consult and co-design specific activities with vulnerable groups, including international students studying abroad, students in rural or remote areas, students from minority backgrounds and students with a disability.
  • Use all these activities to actively monitor students’ digital access and capabilities as technology changes.

3. Build more technology into learning and teaching

Developing digital proficiency is most effective when done in situ. For students, this means integrating it into their learning, and for academics, this means applying it directly in their teaching.

  • Design learning activities and assessments that reflect ways digital tools are used within disciplines and professions: for example, to synthesise, communicate and create knowledge.
  • Encourage students to access self-help resources provided by your institution or freely available online. Connect students for peer support through in-class activities and institutional initiatives.
  • Use role modelling to provide cues for success. Teaching staff can demonstrate scholarly engagement in online discussions, being explicit when needed. Exemplar assignments from previous students can set expectations and support self-monitoring.
  • Create a culture of mutual learning in your class by sharing knowledge about digital tools to show how academics and students can learn with and from each other. This helps demonstrate ongoing skill-building and encourages everyone to tolerate imperfection.
  • Add specific supports for international students studying from their home countries. Allocate class time to build social connections and actively encourage students to help each other outside class.
  • Offer “low bandwidth” learning options including the ability to download as well as stream lectures, low-resolution content options and flexible engagement that enables asynchronous as well as synchronous participation.

4. Strengthen institutional support and capacity

Much can be achieved through institutional leadership and initiatives that act directly to address digital inequality.

  • Support teaching efforts through consistent messaging, policy and procedure that bolster solutions tailored to course, discipline and departmental contexts.
  • Encourage staff and students to experiment with technology in a way that explicitly tolerates risk and accepts learning from failure.
  • Break down operational silos to bring different staff members’ expertise together and build everyone’s digital capability.
  • Identify and address operations and infrastructure that assume a level of access to or knowledge of technologies and therefore exacerbate digital inequality.
  • Commit to a multifaceted plan for digital inclusion that brings together actions across the institution to improve access, learner-to-learner and learner-to-service connection, support and capacity building. If needed, prioritise actions in areas where the greatest gains can be made.

We can’t be complacent that new or cheaper technology will solve the challenges of digital inclusion or that a new generation of young people who have grown up with technology will do it for us. Digital inequality is real, pervasive and increasingly nuanced. But we can make a positive difference in higher education by knowing more, building capacity and working across our institutions to benefit all our students.

Sue Bennett is professor of education and acting executive dean in the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

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Hear more from Sue Bennett speaking about digital inequality and how universities can tackle it, on the The Internationalist, a podcast series from the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).


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