During the COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation has ramped up across society, including in postsecondary career and technical education (CTE) programs. These programs, when offered online or in a hybrid format, have proven to increase access to and flexibility of courses, but not all CTE students have the technology or digital literacy needed to succeed in an online program. The pandemic has also amplified existing gaps in broadband and digital access for students of color.
Black and Latinx adults in the US are less likely to have a computer or robust internet at home for many reasons, including neighborhood segregation and economic barriers, which have led to the disinvestment in and isolation of Black communities from internet providers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, about 34 percent of households with low incomes struggled to pay for internet services, putting them at a major disadvantage and leading them to rely on their mobile phones to go online.
As colleges expand access to online learning, they should consider best strategies for furthering digital inclusion, such as those highlighted in our video, Digital Inclusion: A Foundation for Equity in Online CTE Courses, within the CTE CoLab toolbox, to ensure all students can fully participate in online learning options. Programs need to adopt digital inclusion strategies, particularly if they have the goal of advancing racial equity in CTE learning, to ensure equitable outcomes for students of color.
Strategies for supporting technology access and learning needs
Colleges can take advantage of tools such as the 2020 Digital Divide Index, Digital Planet, and Digitunity’s Tableau, which map out technology access and gaps based on demographic characteristics such as educational attainment, race and ethnicity, gender, and age. Colleges also need to provide the technologies learners need and assess students’ requisite digital skills or computer access. Such assessments, when paired with the digital landscape maps, help colleges better anticipate the resources students need to participate, including devices to get them online and digital literacy development opportunities.
Given the racial and demographic disparities in technology access, colleges must provide access to relevant digital devices, adequate broadband internet, and support for building digital skills. Strategies for supporting these needs include the following:
- Providing devices. The first step for college students’ success is having access to the internet and internet-enabled computers. Colleges can start a technology loan program that provides laptop or portable hotspots to give students access to the right technology they need to be successful.
- Forming partnerships. Community-based organizations (CBOs), public libraries, and businesses can offer digital skills training for students. Partnerships with libraries or CBOs can support digital literacy instruction. And by forming partnerships with internet service providers or businesses that sell computers, colleges can help students find more affordable internet and computers.
- Leveraging national inclusion initiative funding. The newly passed Digital Equity Act will provide $2.75 billion in investment to support broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion efforts. Colleges need to ensure their seat at the table when their state government leaders begin putting together digital equity plans this summer so they can use this funding to support digital inclusion efforts.
Promoting digital inclusion can lead to more equitable outcomes
Along with promoting general access to technology, prioritizing strategies and investments that promote digital equity for students of color is a crucial step toward digital inclusion in CTE online programs. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance recommends the following five intentional supports:
- Affordable, robust broadband internet service. Internet service plans can be very costly and can strain student budgets, so taking advantage of internet service providers’ discount plans under the Affordable Connectivity Program can benefit students of color and those with low incomes. About one in five students who left community college during the pandemic said they didn’t have reliable high-speed internet, which was more prevalent among students of color, who are less likely to have internet at home.
- Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user. Students need to have access to the specific devices essential for their learning and engagement. During the pandemic, student of color disproportionately relied on their cell phone or tablet to complete assignments, which affects their ability to fully engage in their learning, especially if learning management systems aren’t compatible with mobile devices. Colleges can be flexible and include cost of computer and internet access in financial aid packages.
- Access to digital literacy training. Providing digital literacy training can ensure students feel empowered to use technology required for their learning. Students of color, English learners, and adult learners often have varying levels of digital skills, so providing them with additional digital literacy training can allow them to use computer-based applications they may encounter in the classroom and the workforce (PDF).
- Quality hardware and technical support. Students need access to technology maintenance and tech support. Students have varying levels of technological understanding, so colleges could offer technical resources that help troubleshoot any issues.
- Applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration. Creating opportunities for students to apply and build skills increases their confidence, participation, and success. Students of color who are still building their digital skills may benefit from colleges integrating digital skill development into relevant programming that aligns with their interest and meets employers’ needs.
These activities can ensure students of color in online CTE programs, who are disproportionally affected by the digital divide, have access, and supports to build digital resilience, including the skills, agility, and confidence to use new technologies. As the digital transformation of learning and the workforce continues, colleges have an important role in helping students access technology and build digital skills so they can thrive.