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Tech Equity in Higher Education Is a Systemic Challenge

The digital divide is a systemic issue. More than having access to devices, there is a need for faculty to embrace tech and implement it in their teachings.
The digital divide is a systemic issue. More than having access to devices, there is a need for faculty to embrace tech and implement it in their teachings.

The pandemic’s push to a more digitally dependent world, especially in the workplace and education, has demonstrated that the digital divide continues to widen in the United States. This is particularly true for our diverse, working-class students at San José State University (SJSU), where the distribution of laptops, personal devices, and WiFi hotspots have been critical to our effort to support student learning.

The digital divide is not just an individual challenge—it is a systemic problem. Beyond access to an individual device, antiquated networks, underinvestment in computing architectures and a need for high levels of professional development for faculty and staff to apply tech innovations on campuses contribute to this divide.

As one of the most diverse campuses in the United States, every year SJSU graduates thousands of students who go on to work in tech—approximately 2,000 alums work for Apple, 1,500 for Cisco, 1,400 for Google, 1,000 for Intel and 500+ for NVidia. Despite this statistic, it will continue to be difficult to provide students with the skills to succeed without investing in campus infrastructure. And this does not just impact the traditional tech industry, it affects health care, public service industries, K-12 education and the creative economies of art, design, illustration, and music, to name just a few.

Here are seven investments that can help public higher education institutions, such as SJSU, close the gap.

Campuswide Upgrades to WiFi 6

We need faster, consistent and more reliable WiFi across campuses to support the growing number of devices supported by WiFi 6 technology. Campuses are running multiple generations of WiFi, which causes disruptions and downtime as people move from one part of campus to another.

High Performance Computing

Campuses need advanced technologies that allow students to train in machine learning, artificial intelligence and data analytics and enable faculty to conduct research that models some of our most pressing concerns in California, such as wildfires, climate change and affordable housing solutions.

Smart Technologies

University campuses can become smart, ethical environments, using data to connect students to services in real time and space and evaluate the efficacy of support services. A student walking to the library could be alerted, for example, when a writing workshop is beginning in that space. We need dollars to develop and maintain those systems.

Virtual Computing Services

Traditional computer labs rely on individual work stations. Cloud computing allows universities to eliminate desktop computers in labs by hosting software in the Cloud. Labs need smart monitors connected to the Internet. These monitors have a longer shelf life than standard desktops. Virtual software can also be pushed to personal devices, so users don’t need individual licenses for higher-end software packages, creating greater access and equity.  

Buildings Designed to Deliver Interdisciplinary, Tech-Based Education

The built environment needs to be designed to leverage advances in tech-based, team-based and problem-based learning. The traditional model of allocating buildings, spaces and deferred maintenance dollars simply does not meet campus needs quickly enough. As a result, learning environments are simply not designed to support tech-based cutting-edge teaching, training and research. We need new buildings to support this education.

Instructional and Curricular Design

To leverage the hardware students do use, faculty and staff need support building and developing interactive learning objects that can also utilize machine learning and other predictive technologies to support student comprehension. This requires hiring experts in instructional, curricular and graphic design to support the development of these objects.

Accessible and Open-Source Technologies

Perhaps one of the greatest areas in need of investment is accessible technology support—staff and software—alongside investments in open-source software-based education. Combined, a focus on accessible technologies through deploying practices, such as Universal Design, and education designed around the democratic principles of ethical open-source design can propel student learning, faculty research and participatory community engagement forward.

Digital Assets Management (DAM) Systems

Universities lack the infrastructure to locate, identify and organize digital learning objects. A robust DAM could unlock hundreds of thousands of hours of content and allow faculty and staff to upload learning materials, copyright and permission that content and create an amazing catalog of Open Educational Resources for students. With permission, these objects could be shared across the state.

Each of these investments must come with a much more robust data privacy and management plan that allows students, faculty and staff to understand what data universities are collecting and how they are using them. There are also important intellectual property questions these investments raise. These should be managed collaboratively through intellectual property agreements on campuses.

The core issue for higher education, though, is that it lacks the resources to scale these solutions. When campuses make technological investments not covered by the state budget, they come at the direct expense of students through campus fees or from budget reallocations that take away from other critical services. When done strategically as part of a collective plan instead of one by one, such investments can also save dollars and make campuses more thoughtful and effective stewards of state funding. But that cannot happen without longer-term investment and planning, which needs to come not only from traditional state sources but from private sector entities who benefit from the educated workforce higher education systems like the California State University provide.

If we don’t invest in the core technological infrastructure of our higher educational institutions, we will not meet the needs of the rapidly shifting economic environment into which our students are graduating. That means the diverse, working-class students in public higher education will continue to fall behind, and the digital divide will widen further.

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