Eduvation Blog

Surprise! The Digital Divide

Good morning, and welcome to June!

This is Pride Month, and CdnPSE announcements and observations are already flowing. I’m a vocal ally and have written about LGBTQ2S+ issues many times, but right now I’m way behind on my editorial calendar, so forgive me…

I’ve been quiet for a week since I summed up the latest COVID19 and Monkeypox news (“A Storm of Flying Monkeys”). As I warned at the time, I had several speaking engagements last week, including my first in-person conference in 27 months! Those IRL events really take a bite out of my blogging time… 

Before last week’s pandemic précis, we were exploring some answers to the question “what was most surprising about the impact of the pandemic on CdnPSE?” First (“Surprise, Surprise?”) I summarized some of the NON-surprises – like the pandemic itself, and multiple waves driven by evolving variants. I also remarked on the surprising agility of Canada Revenue, Doug Ford, and PSE faculty, who embraced the digital pivot faster than anyone anticipated.

In my second instalment (“Gap Year Surprises”) I detailed the way in which CdnPSE enrolments defied my expectations during the pandemic – and forecasts based on dozens of market research studies – by NOT deferring enrolment en masse due to the digital pivot. Anecdotally, we did see a rise in victory laps, gap years, and deferral requests – but nothing as apocalyptic as we anticipated. (So far as I know, we’re still waiting for accurate data.) Universities in particular saw a surge in part-time enrolments for the 2020-21 academic year, but that trend was short-lived, largely reversing itself with the promise of a return to campus for 2021-22.

It didn’t really surprise me, but many edtech evangelists were caught off-guard by the challenges of the digital pivot, not so much for instructors as for students. Over the next few days, I want to look at how the pandemic exacerbated inequities, learning losses, and student frustrations…

Digital Privilege

A few of us are old enough to remember when the internet was an exclusively academic resource, connecting minicomputers at leading universities, government and military labs, but little else. In the early 1980s, it was an expensive luxury to have a 300bps modem at home, allowing us to tap out arcane commands on a remote VAX server using a monochrome text-only CRT. Our landlines would be tied up for hours as we transmitted emails to the few other early adopters with a university email address. In the 40 years since then, we’ve come to take 24/7 internet connectivity for granted, and cope with the deluge of academic, commercial, and spam emails overflowing our inboxes. But although most CdnPSE students have smartphones and data packages, as well as wifi access on campus and at home, the abrupt pivot to remote instruction in early 2020 highlighted some shocking inequities that left others behind…

The Happy Few

For some CdnPSE students, the 2020 pivot proved to be more convenient and effective, and even preferable, to on-campus learning. Typical online learners – working adults or parents, aged 35-54, already holding a PSE credential – suddenly had more online courses from which to choose. Some PSE drop-outs and stop-outs had a more flexible way to continue their education. Online classes removed barriers for some students with mobility impairments or social anxiety, provided the convenience of “instant replay” for students with auditory processing challenges, and diminished distractions and sensory overload for some students with attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or extreme social anxiety. About 40% of US families preferred online learning for their school-aged children with autism during the pandemic, and some “selectively mute” students reportedly spoke to their peers for the first time in remote classrooms. HEQCO reports that, early in the pandemic, many Ontario PSE students with disabilities appreciated the flexibility of online learning and anonymity of accommodations and services, and reported fewer physical, sensory and even social barriers to education.

“I’m an introvert who deals with a lot of social anxiety. In an online classroom… I’m as calm as I can be, in my safe space at home.”Maude, special care counseling student, Quebec

But those happy few were definitely the exception…



Access Gaps

The pandemic served to highlight in sharp relief the inequities many CdnPSE students had been facing for years…


Inequities Magnified

What became apparent immediately after the pivot to remote instruction was that adequate access to devices and reliable connectivity remained a luxury: marginalized students that had benefited from the levelling effects of a shared campus and institutional supports were suddenly cut off. Among UK university students, a 2021 survey found 63% struggling with poor wifi connections and 24% with the cost of mobile data. In Siberia, 21-year-old college student Alexei Dudoladov made international headlines because he had to climb a 26-foot tree in order to get a cellular signal, to attend his online classes. For 27% of lower-income Americans, a smartphoneis their primary connection to the internet, posing a financial and logistical challenge to online learning. The World Economic Forum ranked “digital inequality” among the 10 “Top Short-Term Global Risks” for the next 2 years.

“I have to go to the forest 300 meters away from the village and climb atop an 8-meter birch tree.”Alexei Dudoladov, Siberian student

Digital Redlining

The issue of the “digital divide” has been studied extensively in the US, where racial inequities persist from 1950s housing policies, and ongoing disinvestment in lower-income and minority neighbourhoods has created the 21st century equivalent: “digital redlining.” An estimated 16.9 million American schoolchildren could not access online education in 2020, including one-third of Black, Latino, Indigenous and lower-income families. Half of all Indigenous children in the US lack computers or high-speed internet access, or both. In 2017, the FCC calculated it would take $80 billion to provide universal broadband access to all Americans. Proposed federal infrastructure spending would direct $42.5 billion toward internet infrastructure for disadvantaged communities, and $14 billion to expand subsidies for lower-income households.

Access is Not Enough

A mere device connected to the internet is only the starting point, and insufficient to ensure equitable access to online learning: students need access to a device enough of the time, with enough bandwidth for synchronous video, and appropriate quiet space to participate in classes, or simply to study. In Canada, prior to the pandemic, 98.8% of households with children had some form of internet access, but only 42% had one deviceor more per person, to support simultaneous learning or working from home. Access to devices and internet bandwidth were worse among lower-income households, which disproportionately included visible minorities, recent immigrants and Indigenous peoples. (During the pandemic, StatsCan tells us those groups were also more likely to be frontline workers at greater risk of exposure to COVID19, living in communities with higher rates of mortality.)

“There is a digital divide within areas that are geographically pretty proximate and they have real potential impacts for students’ geography of opportunity.”Benjamin Skinner, higher education and policy prof, uFlorida

Adequate Bandwidth

The CRTC defines adequate broadband connectivity as 50mbps downstream and 10mbps up. As of August 2020, such broadband was ostensibly available to 86% of urban Canadian households, 40% of rural ones, and 30% in First Nations communities. In 2021, the ICTC found that 28% of households could not support their entire family’s remote work and study during the pandemic, and that rose to 38% in rural areas (and more than 83% on First Nation reserves). The fastest speed available in Nunavut, which is entirely dependent upon satellite connections, is just 15mbps. (Emerging new alternatives to broadband fibre connections include 5G cellular data and low earth orbit satellite networks like Amazon’s Project Kuiper or Elon Musk’s Starlink, which plans a mesh network of 7,518 nano-satellites.) To make matters worse, most Canadians do not actually receivethe internet bandwidth they purchase, so the majority of households fall well below the 50/10 threshold. (God knows I have spent more hours complaining to my ISP than anybody.) Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada has set an accelerated goal to have nationwide broadband available to 98% of Canadians by 2026, through a $2.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund, although some experts believe the cost to achieve 100% access could be up to $6 billion.

Support Gaps

While the technical challenges of adequate internet connectivity is tangible and readily understood, online education disadvantages at-risk students in other ways too…

Online Disadvantages

Online learning has long been demonstrated to disadvantage many underrepresented groups, including Indigenous, low-income, first-generation learners, students with disabilities, rural/remote students, and students with dependents. A 2014 study of one million California community college students found that online courses disadvantaged underrepresented groups by 16% or more. (Remote work also has an asymmetrical impact on faculty and staff based on their life circumstances: those in crowded apartments or with young children at home experience working from home quite differently from those with a spacious home office, plentiful broadband, and lots of peace and quiet.) In Fall 2020, the CDLRA found that half of Canadian PSE faculty and administrators were somewhat or very concerned about their capability to deliver equitable learning experiences online, due to issues of internet and device access, and accommodation for disabilities or individual learner needs.

Marginalized students face a bigger digital divide, but are further disadvantaged by the medium of instruction itself. The pivot online magnifies inequities.

Self-Defeating Choices

Ironically, although lower-income students face more technological barriers and academic challenges online, they may also be twice as likely to opt for online courses as those from higher-income households. A HEQCO study of first-year ONpse students in July 2021 found that just 3% of those from higher income households would opt to take their courses online after the pandemic ends, compared to 6% of those from lower and middle-income households. Although 54% of higher-income students would prefer to take all their courses in-person, just 26% of lower-income and 38% of middle-income students agreed. Lower-income students may be trying to juggle work or family obligations, or assuming cost savings in tuition or commuting costs – but the choice of online courses would appear to work against their own best interests.

Students with Disabilities

Over the past two decades, students reporting a disability have become significantly more likely to enroll in PSE, reaching 27% of undergraduate university students (including 17% with a mental health condition and 6% with attention deficit disorder), and at least 17% of college students (based on 2019 Ontario data). Over the past few decades, institutions have developed enhanced supports and access services for students with special needs, although many were provided only in-person, from braille resources to sign-language interpreters. Centres for Teaching and Learning have been supporting PSE instructors in adopting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in their courses, incorporating flexible materials, multiple means of engagement, multiple means of assessment, advance access to slides, extra time for tests, and asynchronous instruction.

“What’s normal for most people [is]… not exactly equitable for students with disabilities.”Aaron Ansuini, art education student, Concordia U

Interrupted Accommodations

Unfortunately, many accessibility services and pedagogical improvements were interrupted by the abrupt shift to emergency remote instruction triggered by COVID19, and at least initially, emergency remote instruction often failed to consider accessibility of online resources or video platforms. In the spring 2020 rush to remote instruction, instructors could not always ensure full accessibility of crucial learning platforms and educational resources, leaving some students with hearing and vision impairments even further disadvantaged. Some e-learning materials were incompatible with screen reader tools or adaptive computer interfaces: HEQCO reports that 37% of Canadian PSE students with disabilities faced inadequate access to accommodations and materials in 2020. Automated real-time captions in web conferencing platforms were error-prone and unreliable. Although services and accommodations improved by 2021, the disruption of 2020 may have disadvantaged or derailed an unknown number of students with disabilities.

Indigenization Efforts

Indigenous groups have the fastest-growing youth populations in many northern regions of Canada, and are becoming a growing plurality of the population in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. PSE policy makers and institutional planners have been focusing on Indigenous students as a critical segment to enroll and support for years. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce sees the education of Indigenous peoples as an urgent national priority, especially in western Canada and the territories where the economic and social opportunities and risks are greatest for this population. Many institutions, including the University of Regina, OCAD University, University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba, have explicitly focused their institutional strategies on indigenization.

Indigenous Setbacks

COVID19 exacerbated the challenges for most Indigenous students, in multiple ways. The pandemic increased financial challenges for the many Indigenous students who are single mothers, returning to school after a delay. It also reimposed geographic isolation on communities ill-equipped for a critical health emergency, and disrupted campus efforts at in-person social and cultural events, gathering places, and mentoring by elders. Many oral aspects of Indigenous curriculum do not translate online, and the pivot to remote learning increased the struggle many Indigenous youth face with math and science prerequisites in high school. In Ontario, only 17% of on-reserve households have adequate broadband connectivity for online learning, and absenteeism rose during 2020. Canadian data on Indigenous PSE participation and persistence during the pandemic are not yet available, but the US example is discouraging: Native American students attending college fell by nearly one-quarter in Fall 2020.

Even after 2 years of pandemic, adequate broadband is lacking in many rural and remote regions of Canada, and in lower-income households and neighbourhoods. The pivot to remote instruction disadvantaged CdnPSE students, but it also had an impact on academic and psychosocial development for pre-school and K-12 students. Those impacts may be visible among incoming PSE students for more than a decade to come!

Stay tuned…


Speaking of digital pivots… Higher ed marketers know all too well that, while websites, social media, search engine and digital advertising have become critical recruitment marketing channels, some audiences have stubbornly analogue expectations…


uNottingham recruiters are lugging 72 tonnes less paper to UCAS Fairs across England this spring, after converting their traditional viewbook to a “micro-prospectus” that amounts to little more than a luggage tag with a QR code. UofN calculates that the switch saved 72 tonnes of paper, 18,000kg of CO2, and 3.9M litres of water. (I know, CdnPSEs have been printing smaller and smaller viewbooks too, but this one has its own 1-min video!)  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading!

Do drop me a line if you’ve come across data to refute or reinforce any of the observations above. Comprehensive data is still a year or two away, and the pandemic’s impact on CdnPSE is still evolving.

I’m consciously keeping an open mind…  


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please answer the question below to confirm that you are not a spambot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.