Academics and university administrators may be struggling to keep up with social media, but research shows that the digital divide is not just generational. It is racial, ethnic and socio-economic, and there are even differences in the way that men and women communicate online.
That imbalance could affect efforts to recruit, retain and teach under-represented students, according to the US academic who led the work.
“There’s an assumption that all students are equally great with technology,” said Rey Junco, an associate professor at Purdue University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
But students from low-income households, or those whose parents did not go to college, are surprisingly less sophisticated in their use of social media.
People whose friends use social media to check up on them, for example, are less likely to drop out. Yet men are less likely than women to do this, just as black students are less likely to do so than whites, Professor Junco has found.
Students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to engage in any online communication – a factor that helps people to feel more connected to a group and one that has been shown by other research to lower dropout rates. Such students are also less likely to feel comfortable interacting with academics who use social media.
Not so fast on the Twitter
This is something that teaching staff on campus seldom realise, Professor Junco said. “If we keep in mind that not all students have the same level of skill and facility with new technologies, then we behave in ways as educators that help level the playing field,” he said.
“One way this could play out is, if a student says to a professor, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do that’, the professor might scoff and be irritated and say, ‘What do you mean? You know this more than I do.’ So if I am teaching a class and I say, ‘OK, we’re going to use Twitter’, it’s important for me to also be sure that all my students know what Twitter is.”
This digital inequality, as Professor Junco calls it, can affect students as early as the admissions process, he said.
A survey of US admissions officers by Kaplan, the entrance-examination preparation company, found that more than a quarter visit applicants’ Facebook pages and search for other references to them online, and that in more than a third of cases something pops up that hurts an applicant’s chances.
“They’re evaluating people on data they don’t have for everybody and [that] can be discriminatory,” Professor Junco said.
Students who come from higher socio-economic levels and whose parents have gone to college “are going to be more savvy and able to hide their profiles from people”, he said. “They have the internet skills to set privacy settings and be aware of these things.”
Meanwhile, Professor Junco said, the people who are less likely to safeguard their profiles are from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
At university, different types of students also tend to interact online with other people like them, just as students of different races and ethnic backgrounds segregate themselves in real life.
University students “usually don’t use social media to connect with strangers”, Professor Junco said. “For the most part they’re interacting with people they already know.”
But that changes over time, he added, making social media useful tools to link students with their institutions, which helps to improve academic success rates.
“They do meet new people that way. It’s a good way to check out new friends, new people in class. They engage in information-seeking online to learn about them, to see, ‘Hey, is this someone I want to hang out with?’ ”