U. OREGON (US)—Students entering college either have it or they don’t—and which side of the digital divide they fall on may shape what career path they take.
Institutions are “perpetuating rather than resisting inequalities associated with the digital divide,” says Joanna Goode, professor of education studies at the University of Oregon and author of a new study published online in the journal New Media and Society.
“I found that high-school opportunities around technology really shape students’ abilities to engage fully in university academic life,” Goode says.
“If students don’t have experiences in high school, they show up for college ill-prepared to have a variety of choices about which directions to go in their scholarship.
“Strong preparation, either at home or in high school, can really launch students into feeling successful in college. Insufficient preparation really gives students a sense of not belonging and a deficit in their own perspectives as academic beings.”
The research looked at computer technology knowledge of 500 undergraduate students and how skills they brought from high school impacted their early college coursework.
The study, conducted in California with a comprehensive survey and selected follow-up interviews with three students with different technological experiences, captured a snapshot of the digital divide in 2004. While the definition of digital divide may need revision, Goode says, the problems identified in the study likely have gotten worse and need to be addressed.
Wikipedia defines the digital divide as “the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all.”
Goode says that definition might well be more about how people’s identities—tied to their understanding and use of computers and software—create both academic opportunities and obstacles.
“While the knowledge divide is still important, at a fundamental level, it is now more a case of what is the context of using technology, and why does it matter for each individual?”
Computer technology and Internet access are keys to success in college, but students often leave high school with skills ranging from very little to fully saturated, Goode says. Very few of the students had received formal training geared for academic success in high school.
In her study, Goode chose three students with varying technology skills for in-depth interviews who helped her explore what they knew about technology when entering college, and whether their knowledge level was a barrier or a gatekeeper to certain majors.
The picture that emerged from all the data, Goode says, is that in high school “some kids are being trained for using technology for academic purposes or they may be taught for low-level vocational uses that makes them good workers but not necessarily good scholars.
“Even though there is no prerequisite for knowing about technology to get to the university level—there are requirements for math, science and other things—there is no technology prerequisite,” she says.
“But once you walk onto campus, you can’t enroll in classes, you can’t get financial aid, you can’t get onto Blackboard (a widely used electronic education software suite), you can’t answer e-mails. If you have no technology knowledge, you will not even survive the first week at most university campuses.”
Many students, Goode says, begin college unprepared technologically but have no ready access for remedial workshops or help during orientation. “They are left on their own. If they don’t have that knowledge it’s one more sense of ‘I don’t’ belong, I’m not prepared. I’m out of here.'”
Such a feeling, she adds, is especially hard on first-generation students who have little technology exposure at home or in high school.
“The high schools aren’t telling them, the college counselors aren’t telling them, and it’s not until they get to campus that it is a reality. There’s no time to go back and catch up on that knowledge.”
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