Digital divide apparent in COVID-19 outbreak
Jessica Guerrucci – Managing Editor
As the coronavirus outbreak in the United States has pushed universities to an all online learning platform, students who have limited or no access to technology or Internet have been forced to face what is known as the “digital divide.”
“I don’t have Wi-Fi at home,” said sociology major Tahmia Simms, a junior, in a phone interview, “so, I’m staying with a friend so I can have Wi-Fi to do my work right now.”
For Simms, she said the switch to online has been “inconvenient,” for not only herself but for the many others that do not have Wi-Fi at all and do not have the option to go elsewhere.
The director of University Access Programs Dawn Stanton said in a phone interview that once she heard about the move to online, she emailed the 700 to 800 students involved in the program to see who would have an issue with access to technology or Wi-Fi.
“From my outreach, about nine students communicated back to me,” said Stanton. “Of those nine, they all had Wi-Fi. They just needed the computer.”
She said there was only one student who told her they did not have access to Wi-Fi but was unsure of the universities exact plan to combat the issue.
In total, Stanton said she believes there are about 30 students the university is aware of, including the nine from access programs, who are having technology challenges. However, she said there is a high possibility there are more.
According to Pew Research Center, roughly three-in-10 adults or 29 percent with household incomes below $30,000 a year or do not own a smartphone. More than four-in-10, or 44 percent, do not have home broadband services or a traditional computer.
Stanton said originally, a possibility to help the students was keeping the Wintergreen Building open to create a space for students who do not have Wi-Fi, but with the whole university being closed, only essential employees can be on campus.
“I think the university is trying to create a plan, but I think the state and the cabinet is reacting to what is happening with the coronavirus from day-to-day,” said Stanton.
On the university website, they listed additional resources from outside companies such as Comcast, Charter and Altice USA which are offering free Internet for 60 days for those who will not have access.
According to Stanton, the associate director of UAP Ankur Kumar, was helping set up times with students to pick up computers, which would be Mac Pro’s.
The rest of the students, as Stanton said she understands, would be receiving desktop computers distributed from Morrill Hall.
Much of the effort was being led by the IT department, who President Joe Bertolino said students should reach out to in a campus wide email, stating, “If you do not have access to a computer and/or Wi-Fi, please send an email to the IT Help Desk (firstname.lastname@example.org) as soon as possible.”
One of the students Stanton reached out to was exploratory major Janyra Whitmore, a freshman who said in a phone interview that she is fortunate to have computer access, but thinks it could be a big disadvantage to others.
“A lot of people need the library so they can go there and use the computers. A lot of people live on campus for the Wi-Fi,” said Whitmore. “You never know what people have going on at home.”
Whitmore said the university is doing a good job addressing the issue, but they need to get the word out as much as they can that help is available to students.
She also said those who have limited Wi-Fi access or no computer should not have this counted against them, but if it becomes a repeating issue a solution needs to be worked out.
Simms said she had received some emails from the university asking if students needed additional resources and while she appreciated the effort, she still has concerns.
“It’s just simply not really enough for people who just can’t take those options,” said Simms.
In a petition started by marketing major Gavin Scully, a senior, to create a pass/fail option for the remainder of the semester, one student who advocated for it was elementary and special education major Catherine Allen, a sophomore, who said she wanted it because of her lack of computer access.
“I have three siblings also doing school online and we share devices. We don’t all have our own,” Allen stated in the petition. “Some have no devices or Wi-Fi at all. Pass/fail is more fair. Specific grades would only reflect a student’s home situation and learning style, not their ability to do the subject well.”
Simms, who also advocated for the petition, said she had to email one of her professors the first day back from break because the professor had given 10 assignments due the following Monday, asking the professor how she expects students to complete it.
However, she said she understands professors are new to online learning as well and do not necessarily know how to conduct a class online.
“I don’t want to be doubtful in myself or classmates, but all I can say is I wish the best for myself and others,” said Simms, “but I do think it would be preferably best if we were to have a pass or fail method.”
Despite the possibility of more students not having access to technology or Internet, Stanton said the university has done their best to respond and many of the conversations have been around supporting students in becoming online learners.
“I would be surprised if [the transition] were 100 percent smooth,” said Stanton, “but I know the university is 100 percent committed to working this through and helping to alleviate as best we can student’s anxiety and stress around this, but it’s going to take a little time and it’s going to take some patience.”