How can we use digital technology to address inequalities in higher education?

Aerial View Of Students Sat On Red Sofas Working On Laptops
Headshot Of Hester Christmas (1)
Hester Christmas

ACU Marketing and Communications Officer

The second series of The Internationalist podcast from the ACU explores how the work of universities is being changed by the digital revolution, and how they can use their position to confront the challenges posed by digital technology. With thanks to Professor Sasmita Samanta, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, in India; Professor Charles Pascal, Professor of Human Development and Applied Psychology, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the university of Toronto, in Canada and Hriday Thakur, who is studying Biotech at Amity University, Uttar Pradesh in India.

Creating equal access to higher education is key to building fairer, inclusive societies. However, certain socioeconomic factors perpetuate inequalities that jeopardise access and inclusion at universities – especially in a global pandemic. While the shift to online teaching and learning has introduced new opportunities for universities to reach their students and faculty remotely, not everyone’s experience has been the same. The challenges presented by the digital divide and by broader inequalities prompt us to explore what measures universities can take to use digital technology to close the gap.

Enhancing access and optimising resources

By removing physical distance as a barrier, online learning offers access to those who might not otherwise have been able to attend university in person. Through the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KITT) supports children from indigenous communities living in remote, dense forest areas with online teaching and educational resources via WhatsApp and their university portal. 

Digital technology can drive inclusivity in higher education by making it possible to engage a greater number of students with fewer resources. Online seminars and courses optimise human resources at universities, which is especially powerful in light of staff shortages. Similarly, the flexibility of joining classes remotely helps students balance education with work. Professor Sasmita Samanta points out that in India, the dropout rate among students is high due to the pressure to start earning for their families. ‘Now we are seeing students take advantage of online education as they can fit it around work and their other responsibilities’, Professor Sasmita Samanta observes.

Pulling back the curtain on pre-existing inequalities

Whether it’s racism, mental health or poverty – the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated deep pre-existing inequalities, which we are now seeing intersect with the digital divide. 

While universities such as KITT equip students with laptops, not all students have access to the internet. This is a prime example of how creating opportunities does not always translate to a benefit for all students. Equally, students with access to the internet but without a laptop or mobile device find themselves in the same situation. Despite his own positive experience of online learning, Hriday Thakur observed these challenges first-hand. 

‘India is a country that was in a social-economic divide when the pandemic hit us, so most people did not really have the electronic devices or the technology to have online classes on laptops or phones. So that became a very big problem, because they were not able to attend classes anymore.’ – Hriday Thakur

Providing equal access to higher education for all is not just a matter for universities; external stakeholders such as governments also have a vital role to play. While universities can provide the resources and materials for online learning, building technological infrastructure is essential for those living in areas with poor quality internet. Many will relate to the frustration of joining a class or event without a stable internet connection which, for those without internet at all, goes beyond disruptive to actively sabotaging their learning or teaching experience. Inclusive online teaching and learning is, therefore, dependent on technological infrastructure. 

Broadening our understanding of the digital divide

When we think of the digital divide, we tend to think of the gap between those with resources – such as internet access – and those without. However, Professor Charles Pascal suggests that we should broaden this view to consider other forms, such as the fact that students vary widely in terms of their capacity or interest in online learning. While some students might feel more confident in a virtual setting, contributing to discussions from the comfort of their own home, other students will experience the opposite. This also applies to lecturers grappling with a completely new way of teaching. Accounting for this variation should play an important role in rethinking our approach to the digital divide in higher education.

‘We have to reinvent how we use the basics of high-quality interactions for students getting information, applying the information, getting feedback, working with peers. There are lots of ways of teaching and building the capacity of teachers at all levels of education, including university professors, but it's going to take a major investment.’ – Professor Charles Pascal

Rethinking how higher education can improve equity

We hear the phrase ‘once we return back to normal’ often during the pandemic, but what do we mean by ‘normal’? Professor Pascal sees such critical thinking as a way for higher education to support society’s engagement with technology. The role of the university – and the education system is general – is vital in leading the next generation of learners to engage critically with the world around them and address inequalities. As we have seen, digital technology can both include and exclude in the context of online learning and teaching. To harness its potential to drive equity and inclusion, we need to rethink our approach to the digital divide.

‘We need a future with critical thinkers and active problem solvers. Building the skills to engage critically starts with earlier interventions, and major investment in an equitable approach to the digital divide.’ – Professor Charles Pascal

The pandemic has brought the challenges of creating equal access to higher education into sharp focus. Experiences of the digital divide vary widely, and acknowledging these differences is essential to informing interventions and support for both faculty and students. Armed with this experience and lessons learned, universities have a shared responsibility to apply what they have learnt amid the pivot to online learning, to address inequalities and advance access and inclusion wherever possible.

You can discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.