Over the past 24 months, we have gained a deeper understanding of the ongoing need  to ensure students have computers and reliable broadband for quality distance learning environment. Anyone in California seeking a postsecondary education, regardless of what they look like, where they live, time since high school, and their preferred education modality should have on-demand access. Looking to the future, many students will remain exclusively online, with others using online modalities, something that was not available systemwide prior to the pandemic.  Despite the extraordinary challenges of fulfilling their mission amid a global COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions, including our California community colleges, have made considerable progress adapting to the rapid pivot required to serve student needs, though many students are still struggling to get online.

There are still specific student populations (particularly low-income students and students who reside in rural areas) without critical technology and financial resources. The digital divide goes beyond reliable high-speed internet access. Equitable access to devices, software, and the skills needed to succeed at school and work is also essential.

In the wake of the pandemic, information technology and technology support have become critical components of institutions’ ability to adapt. Colleges are applying a holistic strategy for equitable digital access and investing in sustainable ways to provide access to avoid inadvertently widening the digital divide. One of the most significant changes currently being experienced across the system is the development of a much broader collaborative relationship between students and teaching faculty and with staff who support their learning, such as instructional designers, librarians, and academic technologists.

IT leaders play a pivotal role in reimagining what equity means when addressing the digital voids still present today for student populations. The reality that many devices are not meeting students’ digital requirements for learning highlights just part of the struggle. And trying to focus on recommending minimum laptops spec standards is an oversimplification of the issues at hand and not easy to do given the complexities of each district’s needs and resources.

Eric Houck, Executive Director, Information Technology at Chaffey College, believes that the fundamental focus when considering digital access solutions should continue to be on the student experience and the development of cross-functional collaboration efforts between faculty, instructional support staff, academic technologists, and librarians to determine what technology resources should be provided. “A multi-faceted approach is what is needed. I think the root of the need is this; how do we provide sustainable technology solutions that are still meeting the equity requirements of our students?”

When creating long term strategies to meet digital access challenges, Eric suggests a few points to consider:

  •  Student learning experience always comes first.

  • “Now that we are past the point of meeting the immediate need to provide technology resources to students brought on by the pandemic and remote learning, pivoting this consideration around what makes the most sense for students is critical to consider. This may mean talking directly to students to understand what they really need. It may mean talking to faculty and deans in multiple disciplines, both tech-heavy and lighter (or perceived lighter) users of technology, to know where they are utilizing technology or may want to be using technology to align with their program and instructional modalities.”

  • Collaborate with others to ensure success.

    • “Collaboration between faculty and staff is also necessary to ensure that digital accessibility is considered when evaluating and selecting technological tools so that removing barriers for some students does not inadvertently create new obstacles for others.”

  • One size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

    • “Based on the first guiding principle around the student learning experience, it is important to understand that just as students come to us from various paths, the technology they utilize may need to vary.  There are different needs for traditional students vs. non-traditional students. Their levels of technology fluency may vary as well.  Instructional disciplines also have different needs and their own comfortability around utilizing technology in the classroom and online that should factor in too.  Traditional technology support models may also need to adapt to this new reality.” 

  • Factor in the long-term sustainability of your approach.

    • “Beyond support models to consider over the long haul for this technology, the funding model also needs to be thought about. Emergency funding such as HEERF is not around for much longer, and districts need to consider how to support this technology purchasing in a sustainable way for students who are still on their way to degree completion or transfer.”

Leaders at institutions ready to seize new opportunities can challenge themselves to expand access and increase students’ outcomes by leveraging their experience during the pandemic. Digital access for all students is about so much more than just devices. It is also about the environment in which our students can or cannot access technology. By leveraging the knowledge gained during the pandemic, institutions are challenging themselves to expand access and improve students’ learning experiences to achieve the highest level of equity for all.

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