Teaching Pitt: Helping to Bridge the “Digital Divide” Through Tech Equity | University time



This year, as we examine the relationships between data, technology and social issues such as equity and inclusion, we have a good opportunity to pause to reflect on the “digital divide” – “the gap between those who have access to technology and those who have access to it”. not” (Huffman 2018, p. 239) – and how we as teachers can help disadvantaged students who may be in desperate need of support.

The effect of the global COVID-19 pandemic also makes the digital divide a topical concern, as the widespread shift to distance and hybrid education models has revealed significant gaps in equitable access to technology. (bandwidth, equipment and know-how) – shortcomings that have not yet been sufficiently taken into account (Correia 2020, p. 14).

Lack of access to technology at the college level is closely tied to income and race. For example, according to a Pew Research study, only 2% of households earning more than $75,000 per year do not have internet access, while for households earning less than $30,000 per year, 21% lack access to basic broadband internet (Huffman 2018, p. 240). Students with even lower incomes and students from minority communities often have even lower internet access rates (Huffman 2018, p. 240), whether due to a lack of internet connections, inadequate or unavailable equipment and software, or insufficient knowledge of how to use the technology.

Even in the face of this data, however, it is all too easy to assume that our students – part of the so-called “digital native” cohort – are entirely self-sufficient and do not need technological assistance. But a best practice is to operate with an entirely different set of assumptions: (1) students might be less technologically savvy than their instructors; (2) they may be crippled by limited bandwidth on their phones or other devices; and (3) they may not own equipment such as printers and scanners (Correia 2020, p. 15).

The effect of these challenges, while probably felt and highlighted most intensely in the e-learning model, permeates the academy. Imagine, for example, being an off-campus student with no broadband access and no easy way to get to the library. How do I effectively search online with a slow or unreliable connection? How do you edit and process your files on outdated technology or software or on a machine that is far from state of the art? How do you handle quizzes and exams administered online? These conditions are concrete and very real for many of our students, even if the subject is rarely discussed (by them or by us), and it is the responsibility of front-line faculty to help our students adapt.

Existing resources

A first step to help bridge the digital divide and support students who may be technologically disadvantaged is to familiarize yourself with the assets the University has already made available to students in need, and then make them available. to know. Here are a number of helpful resources; we advise you to read them and then post links to these resources in your syllabus and/or your Canvas sites:

  • The Software Download Service is an easy way for your students to access otherwise unaffordable software licenses, and if your course requires specialist applications, or even if mainstream software like Microsoft Office would be useful, they should visit!

  • Short-term temporary equipment loans are available from the Hillman Library Loan Office. For those who need basic technology, like a tablet or laptop to access important course materials, this resource can be a lifesaver.

  • In response to the pandemic, the provost’s office launched a program powered by Pitt IT that makes Chromebooks available to students in need. The program may not continue indefinitely.

  • Training for almost any device or software imaginable is freely available to members of the University community through LinkedIn Learning.

  • Student computer labs can meet many software and hardware needs. The Virtual Computing Lab is available for remote users.

  • Here is a comprehensive list of student technology benefits included in the fees students already pay.

Online and technologically fairer education

Awareness of the problem some students face in online learning and technology-enabled learning environments is an important first step. A good second step is to plan and develop effective strategies on how to improve digital equity in your teaching practices.

In this regard, Daniel Stanford (2020) has developed a useful visual tool, available under a Creative Commons license, that can help you conceptualize the trade-offs that often drive online and technology-assisted teaching. Stanford groups different technological tools according to two dimensions: the immediacy with which the technology makes it possible to deliver content and the bandwidth consumed to provide this immediacy. Stanford’s bandwidth immediacy matrix is ​​the result.

Low-bandwidth technologies can be favored in online teaching scenarios to support students with limited technological access, and this can be done without sacrificing immediacy by adopting the right technological tools, such as collaborative documents and group messaging platforms. That’s not to say you’re limited to the low-bandwidth/high-immediacy quadrant of the matrix, only that other quadrants have distinct challenges that you may want to address, with help and support from the center. teaching, to help your students in the online learning business.

For example, live video conferencing platforms like Zoom transmit material with a high degree of immediacy while consuming large amounts of bandwidth – alternatives exist, such as the use of asynchronous recordings, transcriptions, discussion and audio forums (Correia 2020, p. 16).

Likewise, there is a wide range of alternative assessment options in addition to online quizzes and exams, which can be unstable for students struggling with inadequate technology: open-book exams can be rigorous enough if they are properly planned; e-portfolios teach technological skills and provide students with a high degree of autonomy and pride in their work (Correia 2020, p. 18).


The Year of Data and Society is the perfect opportunity to become aware of the digital divide and intentionally develop ways to address it. For consultation on these or other educational concerns, please contact the Teaching Center for assistance.

JD Wright is an educational consultant at the University Center for Teaching and Learning. He can be reached at [email protected].

The references

Correia, Ana-Paula. 2020. “Bridging the digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Distance Education Quarterly Review 21(1): 13-21.

Huffman, Stephanie. 2018. “The Digital Divide Revisited: What’s Next?” Education 138(3): 239-46.

Stanford, Daniel. 2020. “Alternatives to Video Conferencing; How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All.


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