A student works on a laptop in their kitchen.
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UK and US college leaders debate the digital divide

US and UK college leaders agree that disadvantaged college learners on both sides of the Atlantic experienced very similar challenges during the pandemic.

At a roundtable discussion in July 2021, leaders talked about the ‘digital divide’ and its implications for academic progress and mental health and wellbeing.

The group, representing colleges that embrace technology, was brought together through a new partnership between Jisc and its US counterpart, EDUCAUSE.

Jisc's director of further education (FE) and skills, Paul McKean, set the scene, and outlined key challenges. He said:

“In the UK, there were issues in lockdowns with learners not having access to devices and/or connectivity due to social deprivation, or rural geography.

“Others may have had connectivity and a device, but no safe and quiet place to learn to be able to take advantage of those.”

Mental health and wellbeing

All leaders agreed that enforced online working and studying had caused a huge increase in mental health issues for staff and students.

McKean continued:

“We found that learners became anxious when they didn't receive instant online responses to queries, or to submitted work.

"The ‘Snapchat generation’ are used to the instant gratification effect of receiving quick answers to online requests and commentary. They normally get that from their peers via social media, but they weren't necessarily getting it from teaching staff.

“The other issue is the question of turning web cameras on or off. Lots of learners are uncomfortable with being on camera or showing their home environment, and others struggle due to bandwidth.

“Mostly, this issue has been addressed by colleges setting out predefined ground rules on online lessons, establishing learner expectations.”

But there were plus points to online learning, pointed out McKean:

“Technology enabled isolated learners to keep in contact with the outside world, despite the pandemic. And it provided opportunities for learners who may not have participated fully in a face-to-face environment - the shyer learners.”


Daniel J. Phelan, president and CEO at Jackson College, Michigan, said the pandemic pointed out the difficulties faced by under-resourced students and the lack of internet accessibility. Phelan said:

“In an effort to help address both issues, Jackson College has introduced the laptop academic incentive program for students enrolled for a minimum number of hours.

"Students are issued a laptop for their use while they remain enrolled and, if they complete their associate’s degree, the device is theirs to keep.

“At the onset of the pandemic, Jackson College and colleagues nationwide emptied their computer labs in order to put laptops in the hands of students. Wifi access point devices likewise flew out the door, and parking lot wifi access points were hurriedly put together.

"This approach is far from a sustainable, nor is it desirable. The Biden administration is working to provide expanded internet infrastructure throughout the country, though this will likely be a protracted solution.

"Internet capability should be as ubiquitous as is digital TV. it’s a matter of national priority and leadership.”

Foothill-De Anza Community College District, California, also handed out devices to disadvantaged learners, but this didn’t address all their issues, as chancellor Judy Miner explained.

"I think we have often felt that we've solved the problem by giving out devices, but there's also the issue of broadband, or the lack of it.”

There was an iconic picture circulating in the US during lockdown, she said, showing two ten-year-olds sitting in a burger chain parking area joining an online lesson on their phones because that was only place they could find with free wifi.

That picture was a driver, Miner continued, for making sure that “every inch of our campus space, including the parking lots, will be wifi enabled”.

She added:

“So many of our students are accessing instructional materials on their phones and long-term that's not going to work.

“There's also the issue of the physical space. A densely populated household with siblings and parents who are also trying to study and work online can create a real issue.”

At Grimsby Institute in the north-east of England, the coastal and semi-rural location meant that reliable broadband was a “really challenging” issue, said principal Debra Gray.

Online engagement

Michael Malone, director of curriculum and information services at South East Regional College in Northern Ireland, had further insight on the limited impact of handing out laptops. He said:

“We loaned 350 laptops last academic year to students and this year it's 1,100, but we still found that some students weren't engaging - some haven't even activated the devices.”

To get to the bottom of that issue, the college carried out a survey, which showed that learners wanted different types of teaching, in particular some recorded classes, which helped.

A campaign to keep learners engaged also included virtual coffee breaks, quizzes and other non-curricular activity designed to encourage learners to interact with each other and with their tutors.

Online and offline safety

From Basingstoke College of Technology, principal Anthony Bravo talked about how he is addressing the online safety of learners.

“We're making sure that they start to understand how vulnerable they can become online. They should know what bullying looks like and how they can respond to it. This is part of the induction process now, far more so than ever before.”

Social deprivation in Gray’s college catchment area had knock-on effects for at-risk learners during lockdowns, and there was a “massive increase” in reports of domestic violence.

Providing emotional and social help online was vital, said Gray, and safeguarding meetings and counseling sessions continued virtually. She added:

“I think some of those support services actually work better online for some students - it's about personalisation.

“Some students want to access counseling online because they feel safer in their own space, and we will carry that on. Those students for whom it isn't safe to receive those services in their own home can come and to be safe on site.”

Sally Dicketts, CEO at Activate Learning, also cited ‘safe’ accommodation as an issue. She said:

“We bought wifi for students, we provided them with computers, but we couldn't buy them housing, so even in the lockdown, we had students coming in because it was an oasis away from their unsafe families.”

Returning to campus and the fear factor

Leaders were concerned about student behaviour. Bravo said:

“We've noticed a massive increase in mental health issues, some students not wanting to come back, even some students forgetting how to communicate effectively with each other. It's because they are out of the habit of face-to-face contact.”

Dicketts had noticed some severe behavourial issues never seen before, and she worried about how students would manage socialising again.

There was also talk about the ‘fear factor’. Bravo felt that many teachers and learners had become comfortable with, and felt safe, working and studying remotely, and some don’t want to come back to campus for the autumn term.

Malone also reflected that some staff were “petrified” of coming back into the college after the extended lockdown in Northern Ireland, which was only lifted in May 2021. To combat that, the college ran ‘ask me anything’ sessions with senior managers, which were open and honest.

Dicketts tackled anxiety around the return to campus in multiple ways:

“I wrote regular blogs, where I talked about what we were doing to keep people safe, we showed films of all the cleaning, we arranged virtual coffee mornings and wellbeing sessions, and we held reintroduction days to encourage teaching staff to come in - and only then did we start getting people back to college.”

Find out more

Read the report produced by Jisc/EDUCAUSE based on the roundtable discussion.