Could Technology Access be a Factor in Blacks’ and Latinos’ Abilities to Successfully Participate in Online Courses?

By Tiffany Bain
Broadband & Social Justice

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When it comes to furthering one’s education beyond high school, online courses can be a convenient alternative to traditional face-to-face class meetings.

However, a recent working paper that analyzed how 40,000 Washington State community college and technical students’ grades fared in nearly 500,000 online courses suggested that for some students, particularly African American and Latino students, online courses may be inconvenient and a struggle.

In addition to other factors mentioned in the working paper titled Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas, its authors implied that the digital divide that exists in African American and Latino communities may impact how well the members of these communities are able to perform in online courses.

The authors noted that “some researchers…have raised concerns that online learning could widen the postsecondary access gap between students of color and white students because of inequities in terms of at-home computer and Internet equipment.”

The researchers’ justification may not be far-fetched, especially if the at-home broadband rates, device consumption trends, and digital literacy levels within these historically disadvantaged communities of color are scrutinized.

Smartphones and Tablets Are Inadequate for Passing Online Courses

Currently, reports indicate that African Americans and Latinos lead the nation in wireless Internet and wireless device adoption and consumption. While this is good news in terms of bridging the digital divide, these stats are not as significant when it comes to pursuing an online degree.

In addition to time and money, the other most basic requirements needed to take an online course are regular access to an Internet connection and a computer (i.e. a desktop, laptop, or netbook).

These technologies are needed to frequently check emails, access the online course’s homepage to see if the instructor has posted an announcement, retrieve and submit coursework and grades, or participate in the course’s discussion.

While mobile innovations such as smartphones and tablets have been helpful in implementing these activities, they are not as helpful when it comes to activities such as writing lengthy papers in the instructor’s preferred format. The most recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration broadband adoption report found that less than 57 percent of both African Americans and Hispanics adopted broadband at home.

Some critics argue that a student taking an online course can easily use a computer at their workplace, a local library, or at a family or friend’s house. They also argue that a student can get access to the Internet from a local coffee shop, bookstore, or fast food restaurant.

Although these are good suggestions, they are not realistic for everyone.

What if the student’s workplace does not have a computer available for personal use? What if the local library’s hours are not compatible with the student’s availability?

What if the family member or friend the student intends to borrow a computer needs to use the computer at the same time the student needs to use it? In addition, not all neighborhoods have a coffee shop, bookstore, or fast food restaurant that offer Internet access to its customers. Of those that do, many do not stay open 24 hours or allow access to an electrical outlet to charge the device accessing the Internet.

Lack of Basic Digital Literacy Skills Needed for Online Courses

The working paper, which gathered responses from students who entered college at age 25 or older, concluded that in addition to males, younger students, and students who had lower levels of academic performance, “Black students…had more difficulty adapting to online courses.” Lack of adequate digital literacy skills and other technical aptitudes essential to participating in an online course may be a factor in students’ success in an online course.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 66 million Americans lack basic digital literacy skills.

DigitalLiteracy.gov, the federal government’s website dedicated to increasing digital literacy, defines basic digital literacy skills as using a computer and the Internet, and communicating on the Web.

Its definition also includes using software applications that facilitate activities such as word processing, creating spreadsheets, and making tables and databases, which are necessary for the majority of post-secondary online courses.

The FCC and DigitalLiteracy.gov correlate inadequate digital literacy skills to lack of at-home broadband and demographic disparities that include minority groups.

The digital literacy disparities also include people who have low income levels, which include African Americans and Hispanics, who, on average, earn less income than most of their white and Asian-American counterparts.

Problem Found, Solution Needed

The “Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas” working paper mentioned a number of factors that may explain why some students are able to adapt and perform better than others in regards to online courses.

However, further studies should pursue students that are at a technological disadvantage – that is, those who come from communities that are behind in adopting at-home broadband Internet, lack regular access to a computer and Internet, or lack the most basic digital literacy skills – to further understand how these students can adapt to and perform well in the relatively convenient classrooms of the 21st Century.

Tiffany K. Bain is a 2011 public relations graduate of Florida A&M University. She currently serves as the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council’s Research Associate. She got her start in the industry in 2007 as an Emma L. Bowen Foundation intern at the nation’s leading cable provider.

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