Digital exclusion hits students hardest at the start of their journey

VLEs, intranet, sports and social apps – the digital ecosystem at university is vast. We must induct students into it quickly and carefully to prevent them falling behind

Claire Smith's avatar
University of Sussex
5 Oct 2022
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Digital exclusion often strikes early for university students

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Digital exclusion affects us all at some point, in one way or another. It’s frequently seen as a lack of hardware devices, internet service, accessibility and/or ICT literacy. But I think it’s broader and includes elements such as our feelings, sensory experiences and sense of worth, and it can also affect attainment, engagement and feelings of belonging. And while digital exclusion may often be unintended it disproportionately impacts certain groups.

On a recent overseas visit I felt as if I’d had my right arm cut off when my mobile phone didn’t have the necessary setting for calling and my data would only send one email a day. Severely limited, I bounced from one free wi-fi zone to the next. This reminded me that at times I can be too quick to assume that the students I’m teaching have the same features I use, know where things are and can access them as I can. The assumptions that – as teachers, support staff and leaders – we make frequently exclude students and possibly colleagues too.

Perhaps a fresh look is needed, and where better to start than by looking at how students find out about and use the digital ecosystems – virtual learning environments (VLE), intranets, sports apps, etc – that are needed to survive, let alone flourish, at university.

Things to think about here include: when are these digital ecosystems first mentioned to students? Is such information buried in a welcome email? Is it inclusive? Is it available in different languages and formats – for example text, video, audio?

As such, I worked with a group of “digital connectors” (paid student ambassadors) who surveyed students and found that the very first time they have access to these digital ecosystems, during induction, was the key place to start taking aim at digital exclusion. We discovered shocking examples of how, a full semester in, many students still didn’t know how to navigate the university’s digital ecosystems, largely because the guides we had created were themselves hard to locate (and in the VLE). To address this, we created a “how to” video and instructions in student-friendly language, which were integrated into welcome week and placed outside the VLE.

So, we need to think more about what can be established in those early days when students first experience the university’s digital ecosystem. How much time do we spend inducting students into it? The students talked about those that are “digitally savvy” quickly appearing to have the upper hand and how, as a student, it’s key to make friends with students who have got to grips with the digital side of things.  

Even before induction there are opportunities to talk about device specifications, what functionality is needed and where students can borrow equipment. It’s also very useful to set clear expectations of which digital skills incoming students should have – and how they can improve them. But whose responsibility is this? Central university? IT services? Module leads? Lecturers? All of the above.

It’s important to think about connectivity, too. The first time a student sets foot on the physical campus, how are they greeted and welcomed in terms of digital systems? For example, how do they know to connect to Eduroam? Can they use the digital ecosystems they need? What apps should they download?

If initial connectivity isn’t instant and smooth it can lead to the student not feeling welcome. The anxiety of “Do I deserve to be here?” can surface quickly if students perceive others to already be connected and “ahead” of them digitally.

It’s not just the campus that needs to be considered, though. For example, when mobile data is required off campus, how are students advised to get this at a low cost? This may disproportionately affect students from overseas and those from low-income backgrounds on pay-as-you-go phone contracts. Not being able to access cellular data is very limiting, especially when new students are navigating where to meet a fellow student in town or use student-focused apps when out and about. Again, this can easily create feelings of isolation. 

Whether on or off campus it’s helpful to think about how students access information for their learning. Do they need to visit a website? Or use an app? It’s so easy to get excited about a shiny new app, but they are not all easy for everyone to access. A student who has been given a “hand-me-down” laptop or phone can find that the fancy new app being trumpeted by their tutor doesn’t work or consumes a lot of cellular data, so they can only afford to use it when in a wi-fi zone.

If we truly want to prevent digital exclusion then the focus needs to be on information delivered via browsers that work equally well on desktop and mobile devices – and on any browser the student chooses to use rather than being tied to a specific operating system such as Microsoft Windows. At the same time, if a student requires accessibility features (for example, text to speech) that aren’t available in the app proscribed by their tutor, this can mean anything from a lesser experience at one end of the scale to instant exclusion at the other.

Digital needs are now as wired into higher education as umbilical cords. We can no longer focus just on the campus or the teaching sessions – the whole student experience needs to be understood from the digital perspective, too.  

At the same time, institutions cannot only focus on the digital ecosystems that they themselves provide for students, because students do not just experience these – they also frequently use social media platforms and more. We all remember a time (it can’t just be me) when a social media message you didn’t read also contained a key piece of information you really wish you’d seen. Institutions cannot account for this entirely, of course, but they must be aware of how the same principles of the “hidden curriculum” also exist in students’ digital experiences and how this can influence key feelings such as cohort identity, inclusion and worth.

Digital exclusion is certainly preventable, but how it might be achieved is multifaceted. Truly understanding those first few months of the student journey and undertaking focused action in order to improve them is a great starting point. At the same time, examining new projects and digital ecosystems’ potential for digital exclusion before implementing them will ensure that the cycle is broken bit by bit.

If we have digital exclusion on our minds and on the agenda – and by having students as key partners in all we imagine, design and implement – one day we will not have to cure it any more, because we will have prevented it.  

Claire Smith is deputy pro vice-chancellor for education and innovation at the University of Sussex and professor of anatomy for Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

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