University of Maine Wi-fi hotspots

McKenzie, L. (2021) Bridging the Digital Divide: Lessons from Covid-19 Washington DC: Inside Higher Education, February 2, 27 pp

This is the second post in a series of three about reports on the digital divide and online learning. The first was about an article from the Economist Intelligence Unit that focused primarily on the divide between institutions and countries that were prepared for digital learning and those that weren’t.

This report is quite different in that it focuses on inequities among students and provides examples and suggestions about how to mitigate these inequities.

What is the report about?

When colleges pivoted to remote learning….access to campus computer-labs and Wi-Fi networks was restricted, exposing social and economic disparity among students, and hampering students who already faced greater barriers to completing academic programs compared to their peers.

This report highlights cutting-edge strategies employed by institutions to promote student success in the short-term. It also shares advice from online learning experts, administrators, instructors and students for long-term changes in policy, practice and pedagogy.

Who did the report?

Inside Higher Education is a source for news, analysis, and services for the higher education community, mainly covering the USA, but also Canada and sometimes internationally as well. Lindsay McKenzie is the technology reporter at Inside Higher Education.

This report was done in collaboration with the National Council for State Authorisation Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA). SARA is an agreement among member states… that establishes standards for inter-state offerings of post-secondary education.


Similar to the report from Economist Intelligence Unit, this report is primarily an opinion piece. However it is focused on the specific issue of the type of inequities that arise from digital learning. While also drawing mainly on other research on the impact of Covid-19, it does also include actual examples or cases that attempt to deal with inequitable access to digital learning.

It is focused entirely on the U.S. higher education system.

Main findings/conclusions

Student engagement

Lack of student engagement was highlighted as one of the main limitations of institutions’ responses to Covid-19. The top three practices that most encouraged student satisfaction were: 

  • personal messages from instructors checking on student progress
  • use of real-world examples to illustrate course content
  • assignments that asked students to reflect on what they have already learned and still need to learn

Types of inequality

  • equipment: while nearly all students (95%+) have access to a laptop computer and/or smartphone, students of color and students of low-income families were more likely to rely on older, lower-quality devices. Instructors need to reach out and identify and support such students 
  • high-speed (broadband) internet access: In poorer families, students not only have to share equipment but also internal wi-fi networks. Institutions have a duty to understand their students’ technology limitations and adapt classes accordingly. This means allowing students to stream video lectures when convenient, and using low-band communication tools such as learning management systems, text-based chat sessions, or email.
  • more tech isn’t always the answer: a lot of information about how to get online is…online. [Inequity] is a broader societal and civic and cultural problem.
  • laptop shortages/surpluses: Chromebook shipments grew by 90% in one financial quarter in 2020. Institutions that bought laptops for students though risked high prices because of demand and surpluses once students returned to campus. 
  • privacy concerns: some students were required to have cameras on at all times while they learned.
  • don’t make accessibility an afterthought: students with disabilities expressed concern that many institutions were failing to provide adequate accommodations in the switch to emergency remote learning
  • nearly all students have the hardware but it may be old, badly worn or not connected at a speed suitable for learning


  • University of Maine’s ‘Study from Car’ initiative: more than 200 drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots were created, enabling parents, students and other people without Internet access to park near public schools and libraries and work from their cars (of course, you need a car to do this).
  • the Future of Privacy Forum published 10 principles for protecting student privacy and equity during Covid-19
  • build in universal design principles from the start of a course; ensure assessment is in a form suitable for students with disabilities or that there is an adequate alternative
  • institutions need to meet students ‘where they are’ regarding technology equipment
  • regularly survey students to find out what technology they own 
  • many support services formerly provided only on campus could now be made available online, but only if students have the necessary technology access at home

My comments

This was a well-researched, thoughtful article with some very pragmatic examples and advice. Institutions do need to collect better information and data about students’ off-campus technology environments, and institutions should have strategies for mitigating inequity of access, even when students return to campus, as in the future, even full-time campus students will need to spend a good deal of time studying online away from the campus.

However, while there is an obligation on institutions to provide adequate services and support for all students, universities and colleges cannot directly impact the underlying economic and social causes of inequality, including inequality of access to technology at home. The use of technology for teaching does not itself cause or resolve these inequalities; but it will magnify them without counter-measures. In other words, although the solutions suggested in this article are useful, they are more of a BandAid; they do not get to the root causes of inequality. 


  1. I appreciate wholly the perspective of American students, after all I work for a company that serves that population with broadband services and devices to close the divide. My focus is Canadian students; where is the research or attention on those who experience barriers to learning from home and what is being done to address this in Canada? The USA has huge funding initiatives (ECF) that schools are using to provide LTE laptops and hotspots for underserved students. Canadian students are being left behind, some like First Nations, more than others, and we need to take whatever counter measures are necessary whether during a pandemic or not.

    • I completely agree, Celeste. There is a Canadian strategy for increasing Internet access/speeds to northern and isolated communities, although it is rolling out too slowly, but there is no parallel funding to compensate for the social or economic conditions of many disadvantaged communities. You need human as well as technological support.


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