Bridging the Digital Divide to Create Digital Equality

As many educational institutions embrace technology and evolve their educational models, an almost equal number struggle to adequately join in this digital revolution. The result is a stark divide in our educational system and in public policy. The divide between the digital “haves” and “have-nots” echoes civil rights era warnings that we run the risk of creating two Americas, separate and unequal. To complicate things further, what we call the digital divide is not an issue in merely one population, system, or industry. More than anything, the digital divide highlights a central paradox of technology itself. As Preston Winn, VMware’s director of education solutions and product marketing for end-user computing, describes it, “Technology has the ability to level the playing field for people, but if you don’t do it right, it can become the biggest barrier.”

The Dimensions of the Divide

The digital divide extends beyond classroom walls. It is not just about schools lacking the resources to provide access to digital devices or infrastructure to support a secure, one-to-one or bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program. The divide is also about broadband service to the home.

Today, only 67 percent of Americans have broadband service to their homes, with adoption rates among African-American and Hispanic households running an average of about 15 percent lower than American homes in general. It’s often a matter of finances: 33 percent of those who do not have broadband service to their home cite cost as the reason.

The digital divide also impacts adult continuing education. The dropout rate for these courses is very high and studies show that the reasons include the cost, complexity, and inability to acquire the necessary technology. Yet another example of the digital divide exists between teachers and students. This dimension is about legacy thought processes and workflows, whether in regard to teaching, research, or on the school administration and business side. All these processes are difficult to evolve. For some institutions, Winn says, “This is a high hurdle indeed. They just come to a standstill.”

The Challenge of Creating Digital Equality

Just as the digital divide has many dimensions, so do efforts to eliminate it. Both higher education institutions and K-12 schools are committed to closing the gap for socioeconomically challenged students. At the K-12 level, the most popular approach is to issue each student a device to ensure classroom access to digital media. This is becoming the norm in private and parochial schools. For public school systems serving economically disadvantaged communities, the situation can be very different. This is where the digital divide is widest and cuts deepest.  

The challenge for these schools is generating the necessary funding. In the United States, most school districts are managed and operated as separate, independent businesses. This situation makes addressing issues as complex as bridging the digital divide in any coordinated fashion even more challenging. Many public primary and secondary schools may have up to 95 percent of their student population on free or reduced-price lunch programs—for these school systems, finding the resources to afford a 1:1 program is an enormous upfront obstacle and an even bigger one to sustain over time. But despite these complex challenges, the goal is the same: to level the digital playing field and create “digital equality,” both as a society and in our school systems.

The Blended Learning Environment

At the higher education level, it’s estimated that students average 2-3 digital devices each. As a consequence, universities must offer seamless, device-agnostic environments. According to Winn, this approach allows for more creativity. “It helps enable the creation of a blended learning environment,” he says, “where students can learn and read on any device. That kind of flexibility is what’s needed to create a modern digital learning environment.” Winn says that ultimately, certain segments of the student population in K-12 schools would be equally or better served by transitioning to this device-agnostic model. But, he wonders, “Is higher education really taking full advantage of the opportunities that this model offers?”

The digital ecosystem is more than just boxes and devices, Winn says. Getting stakeholders to work together is the real challenge. “If it’s not part of your DNA at the university,” he says, “the way you teach, the way you administer, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the technology.”

The Digital Workspace and Digital Equality

Winn argues that, while device access does make a difference at the K-12 and university levels, it should not be the main focus. What will ultimately make the real difference is both access to technology and the associated coaching and support from teachers, professors and administrators. Additionally, content from a myriad of sources—whether publisher-generated, open source, learning platforms, or other resources—must be accessible when it’s needed, where it’s needed, and from any user digital device.

This is the seamless, digital learning environment that the VMware® secure digital backpack powered by Workspace One™ makes possible. It allows students, faculty, and administrators to access the broadest array of resources—including any kind of content, native applications, web apps, virtualized apps—anytime, anywhere, from any device. On top of that, accessibility via a single sign on (SSO) delivers an intuitive, consumer-like end-user experience—the same experience that is already so familiar to students.

Not only will the digital workspace help to break down the barriers of the digital divide and achieve what Winn calls “digital equality”—it will also change the relationship between technology and its users in the educational community. “We can say yes now, instead of no. And that,” Winn concludes, “changes everything.”