Addressing the "Digital Divide" and Impact to Educational Equity and Access: A Qualitative Inquiry of Students in Higher Education
In March 2020, much of higher education transitioned to emergency online education as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of colleges and universities, with many students being sent home to communities that were not able to support reliable broadband internet service or to environments that lacked the necessary devices and software for their educational studies (Ibacache et al., 2021). Universities were provided with funding to address student emergency needs, including providing additional devices to students and families, utilizing technology to make courses mobile-friendly and to connect students to the internet through hot spots or supplementing the costs of increased internet usage in their homes (Ratledge et al., 2020). This study explores the research question, “As online education and digital access remain an integral part of the higher education experience, what programs can colleges and universities implement to ensure equitable student access to technology and highspeed internet needed for academic success?” Through a review of current literature, relevant questions were identified, and a qualitative research study protocol was established to host focus groups with students who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to assess their experiences and identify potential services and resources for additional support. Following review and coding of the focus group transcripts, key themes emerged around access to digital course codes and texts, technological efficacy and skills needed to engage in online classes, addressing financial barriers associated with external software and platforms, and integrating training and educationinto existing programs for faculty, students, and staff. The project explores systemic practice implications, legislative and policy impacts, and related theoretical framework that will guide future research in this area.