10 Chapter 10 – The digital divide and first-year students: Technology and equity in school

Deconstructing the digital divide

Kapusta, R., & Shorter, D.

This chapter focuses on our main question which is: The digital divide: What are inequities in technology within K-12 education?  How is Ohio State and the Digital Flagship Office looking to break this digital divide?  Furthermore, the chapter highlights how the technological digital divide in the K-12 sector is influencing a student’s success prior to entering college.  Additionally, some of the overall themes connected to the access and utilization of educational technology are identified. A description of both the negative and positive relationship of these themes and the digital divide follows.  First, one of the goals is for this chapter to clarify how access and use of educational technology impacts students of different socioeconomic (SES) levels.  This is directly related to their academic preparation and transition to college.  Secondly, it is acknowledged that there is a digital divide when students enter arenas of higher education.  The question becomes, what direction are universities taking to enable students to break out of the divide?  Specifically, we  focus on how Ohio State’s Digital Flagship Office and the iPad Initiative is impacting the digital divide.  Within this section, the concentration is on how iPads have been integrated at other institutions and what data was produced based on the research conducted.

Digital Divide in K-12 Education

This section of the chapter provides information on the digital divide within the K-12 education system of the United States.  It includes both levels of the digital divide to provide an overall perspective of how K-12 students are being impacted by technology prior to entering college. In addition, a three-level theoretical model is featured to explain the digital divide within the American K-12 system. One of the main focuses of this section of the chapter describes the impact of educational technology on the academic preparedness among K-12 students of different socioeconomic (SES) levels.  Further, this section includes content on the positives and negatives of the K-12 higher education transition that are associated with use and access to educational technology among students. Lastly, this section of the chapter captures the voices of researchers and educators by concluding with suggestions and recommendations on closing the gap of the digital divide within the K-12 education system of America.

Overview of the First Level of the Digital Divide

Historically, researchers have conceptualized the digital divide as a binary term referring to the “haves” and “have nots” of technology equipment and the ability to access the Internet (Valadez & Duran, 2007).  Goode (2010) stated that the factors involved in determining the “haves” and “have nots” of the digital divide are gender, race, income, primary language, geographic location, physical and mental abilities, educational status, and generational characteristics.  As a result, the American education system is a common place where there is technological imbalances among high and low resource institutions.

Digital Divide in Schools (K-12) and at Home

Over the last decade, 100% of public schools within America reported to have one or more computers available for educational purposes with Internet access, and 58% report to having carts with laptop devices (Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010).  However, access to, and use of, home and school computers among K-12 students remain unequal (Dolan, 2016).  Schools with more resources are able to provide professional development opportunities for instructors, administrative support, trained staff with skills in technical support, and staff with expertise in media creation and development (Dolan, 2016).

Within the home, the current facts show that 92% of middle school to high school aged students access the Internet every day, 97% of them engage in games via technology, and 75% of them have direct access to a smartphone (Dolan, 2016).  Dolan (2016) found that 79% of homes within the US have computers for residents to use.

Below are statistics from Dolan’s (2016) research on the digital divide.

The Digital Divide: Second Level 

While the first level of the digital divide focuses on the access and cost of technology (Valadez & Duran, 2007), the second level of the digital divide involves the knowledge and use of technology (Huffman, 2018).  As previously mentioned, Valadez and Duran (2007) describe the first level of the digital divide as the battle between the “haves” and “have nots”.  However, Huffman (2018) describes the second level of the digital divide of technology by using the phrases “who can use it” versus “who cannot.” The main areas of concern that the second level addresses are having a sufficient amount of technology staff for updates, maintenance, training purposes, and access to technology staff repair and teaching communities (Huffman, 2018).  The gap connected to the second level of the digital divide impacts how one thinks about the function, operation, and structure of families, businesses, society, free time, education, the value of skills and knowledge, where to acquire information from when needed, how to relate to other people, who has authority in life, and what is needed to be successful. Therefore, Huffman (2018) suggests a three-step process to provide support and targeted training in the use of technology as well as how to gain access to information on a global scale.

Sparks (2013) describes the digital divide as host to the descriptors of a large scope of social distinctions regarding the access to and utilization of technological devices and resources. Selwyn (2004) portrays the evolution of the digital divide as the initial identification of societal gaps in physical and telecommunication access and usage of technology to also recognizing social, economic, cultural, and political issues that are associated with societal gaps. Goode (2010) states that gender, race, income, primary language, geographic location, physical and mental abilities, educational status, and generational elements are all attached to the digital divide. Lastly, Martin (2003) identifies three intangible items of the digital divide which are motivation, possession, and skill.  Each of these theorists provide much to be considered regarding this subject.

Theoretical Model of the Digital Divide in K-12

According to researchers, the digital divide within K-12 schools can be described employing a three-level theoretical model (Hohlfeld, Ritzhaupt, Barron, & Kemker, 2008).

  1. The first level of the model is based on equitable access to technological equipment, resources, and support within a school. The measured factors of the first level of the model  are student-to-computer ratios, teacher-to-computer ratios, ways to access the Internet, and the amount of technology support staff within the school (Hohlfeld et al., 2008). Ultimately, schools are placed on a spectrum in ascending order when compared by the amount of access to technological resources available for their students.
  2. The second level of the model describes how frequent the digital resources are being utilized as well as the reason for being used by students and instructors within the classroom (Hohlfeld et al., 2008). The divide among the second level of the model is measured by the usage frequency of different digital resources by students or instructors, the usage reasons, and the level of connection the usage has with what is being taught on that day.
  3. The final level focuses on the ways that technologies are being used to empower people within the context of their education. It is measured by students completing comprehensive exams to test their technological abilities and skills. Then instructors must design strategic approaches to actively incorporate technology into their academic agendas to support the skills and abilities of their students (Hohlfeld et al., 2008).
Impact of Educational Technology on 1st Year Undergraduate Students

The use of technology for teaching and learning seems to be a growing common practice within all levels of the American education system. The increasing trend of using technology in education has led institutions to become quite confident that technological resources play a critical role in the academic experience of college students (Elmahdi, 2003). As a result, students often find themselves required to have access to and experience with educational technology tools for the opportunity to be academically successful (Goodfellow & Wade, 2007). However, the reality of requiring students to have access to and experience with educational technology tools can be dangerous for the institutions and detrimental to certain students.

Undoubtedly, students from varied ethnic backgrounds and life statuses are arriving on college campuses every year. Due to the different backgrounds and statuses of prospective and current college students, findings from Goodfellow and Wade’s (2007) study make it clear that a digital divide exists, especially in critical areas related to college success. Research repeatedly identifies multiple factors that contribute to the digital divide among students, even though the strength of association between the factors and technology skills varies. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Goode (2010) stated that gender, race, income, primary language, geographic location, physical and mental abilities, educational status, and generational elements are attached to the imbalances of the access and use of technology. However, Goodfellow (2002) found that gender and age have weaker associations with technology skills. Rural/urban origins of the students show to be insignificant relationships related to technology skills (Goodfellow, 2002).

In the early 2000’s, a survey revealed that 49% of college students had no contact with the Internet until they arrived on campus (Jones, 2002). Ultimately, first-year undergraduate students with little to no experience with educational technology tools can expect to negatively impact their academic success while in college. Despite the existing crucial issues surrounding equal access to technology (Judge, 2005), colleges and universities are still operating with the assumption that students are technologically competent upon their arrival on campus (Goodfellow & Wade, 2007).

Ohio State, Digital Flagship, and iPads

This section provides information as to how the integration of iPads in the higher education setting impacts a student’s educational outcomes as well as elaborating on the benefits and costs of providing iPads to students in higher education.  Furthermore, this section delves into how iPads can be used to benefit a student both academically and socially.  Next, is background on why Ohio State chose to create a Digital Flagship Office and the anticipated goals to benefit the university.  Finally, there is focus on why the iPad initiative was implemented at Ohio State and its impact on the student body population.

iPad Integration in Higher Education

Institutions of higher education are battling with enrollment numbers, federal funding, donor contributions, and retention rates on a daily basis.  To address such critical issues, these institutions are looking at innovative tactics to recruit, retain, and support students through graduation and into job placement.  One tool which institutions employ to recruit, retain, and support students is a 1-1 iPad Initiative. These initiatives provide a new piece of technology, typically a tablet such as an iPad, to students upon enrollment and arrival at the university.  This is afforded for the student to use for academic and personal use. The push to provide technology into the hands of students allows access to technology in higher education that they may not have had prior to coming to college. As seen in the sections above, the K-12 digital divide discriminates against none and can affect all in their educational journey, providing barriers when entering and navigating higher education.


Most importantly, affording technology to students allows for institutions to keep up with what is relevant and needed for students to be successful in the educational sector and beyond.  Providing iPads on a 1-1 basis allows for the institution to remember that they, “…need to remain attentive to what students do and how they engage with each other as well as with the learning resources we provide” (Burnett & Merchant, 2017, p. 241).  As Burnett and Merchant (2017) state, it is important to know what technological resources students are needing to be successful in the classroom to help them succeed post-graduation (Burnett & Merchant, 2017). Below are two YouTube videos that provide insight into the importance of technology and iPads in higher education.

First, from Ohio State, it is seen that the institution is acknowledging that digital connectedness is no longer a sedentary process, but now one that allows for collaboration and integration into the world.  As stated in the video this is not just about the work but transforming how the work is completed (Ohio State IT, 2018). Also, the integration of the Digital Flagship Office and creating the iPad initiative demonstrates Ohio State’s commitment to providing technological resources in higher education. As one of the largest institutions and land grant universities in the country, the YouTube video below is a refreshing look into how Ohio State values increasing their students’ success.

The second video highlights a different view into an institutional type that also values the integration of technology into the classroom setting.  Maryville University, with a little under 10,000 students, the majority of which being graduate students, has integrated technology into their students’ academic and social worlds (Jamf, 2018).  This institution understands that teaching students with a “one size fits all” approach may not be beneficial. Providing iPads can prevent a singular learning style, as students can learn through different modes and they have access to a device they may not have had before (Jamf, 2018).


The YouTube examples seen above demonstrate drastically different institutional styles as students transition from the differential world of K-12 education.  These institutions of higher education are bridging the inconsistent access to technology through an individualized approach.

Benefits and Costs of iPads

Though providing technology, resources, and access to technology can be perceived as a beneficial process for students in higher education, the integration of technology in higher education can have both advantages and disadvantages.


The benefits and costs of providing technology to students in higher education are directly related to the infographic seen above discussing the digital divide within American higher education.  Specifically, as mentioned by Goode (2018), the following categories impact the digital divide: gender, race, income, primary language, geographic location, abilities, educational status, and generational elements.

First, the benefits of the digital divide connect to Goode’s (2018) categories as providing technology to students in higher education looks to eliminate these factors that historically have disadvantaged underprivileged students.  For example, providing students with technology can lower the impact on a student’s income level or educational status.  All students would be provided the device regardless of their status within these elements, meaning students would not be denied the device because of their race, income, or primary language.  This would allow all students to have easier access to communicating with other students and faculty, as well as addressing their educational and personal needs through connection to WiFi.

Related to the costs of providing technology to students Goode’s (2018) categories impact these aspects significantly.  When providing technology, administrators need to analyze and support students whose educational status and abilities may not yet be ready to incorporate a new technological device.  When introducing technology to a student who is not ready, they may actually be discouraged and avoid its usage.  Secondly, as students are typically provided their device for all four years, support needs to be given.  For instance, this would be to students who on breaks go to homes without WiFi accessibility.  Faculty members expecting such students to use the device for homework or projects while away from campus must be cognizant of this potential limitation.  Relatedly, providing an iPad to a student whose primary language may not be supported by the device causes additional layers of difficulty to understanding and using the device presenting the potential to negatively impact their educational career.  Finally, the element of generational differences between students and administrators and faculty may cause for educational turmoil.  If a faculty or staff member receives a piece of technology similar to that of the student’s, generational elements may impact the use frequency of the device or how it is implemented into the daily curriculum.



Overall, studies identify that providing technology to students in higher education is beneficial for the students in their academic and personal pursuits.  The main benefits of integrating iPads into higher education include affording access to technology, providing a mobile educational environment, communicating with students and social connectedness.  


The main disadvantages of technology in higher education include that tablets are not a replacement for laptops or desktops, faculty and administration are at times unsure as to how to integrate this technology into the classroom, and finally, providing technology to a student does not guarantee the student will be academically successful.

Ohio State and Digital Flagship

Knowing there is a digital divide in the K-12 educational sector and wanting to ensure access and affordability to Ohio State students, Ohio State’s Digital Flagship Office was created as a, “…comprehensive, university-wide digital learning initiative to support educational innovation for students and economic development opportunities for the community…it is a student success initiative to blend learning technology through the university experience and increase student engagement and learning transformation – both inside and outside of the classroom” (Digital Flagship – About, n.d.). Though many see the Digital Flagship Office as the office that has provided iPads, the office, “…is about more than providing students with a device or coding instruction; it is about giving them the resources to build healthy relationships with each other, their communities, and the technology they use” (Digital flagship at the Ohio State University, 2018, 1:36).

The Ohio State Digital Flagship Office has three main program goals which focus upon student technology, coding curriculum, and iOS design lab (Digital Flagship – About, n.d.).

Student technology emphasizes the physical 1-1 iPad Initiative that provides all incoming first years an Apple iPad, protective case, smart keyboard, and apple pencil, and apple care (Technology, 2019).  Through the Digital Flagship online website and tutorial videos, students are afforded short information videos that give them the opportunity to learn about new apps and how these apps may be beneficial to their educational and personal development.  Lastly, by granting access to Apple Care and Digital Flagship peer educators, students are able to seek out valuable support when needed.

Coding curriculum is another goal in the Digital Flagship Office.  The office believes that, “It’s not only computer scientists who can benefit from the skills and competencies developed in coding instruction.  More than creating effective programming; coding encourages the development of grit, problem-solving skills and computational thinking. It is a skill whose rewards and applications only seem to grow” (Coding Curriculum, 2019).  Knowing that technology plays a role in almost all jobs and careers post-graduation, by providing this free curriculum, coding workshops, and resources, students are able to learn a new skill that can benefit them beyond the classroom.

The final goal of the Digital Flagship Office is iOS Design Lab which include apps specific to Ohio State, a mobile design lab, and coding curriculum.  More information about the mobile design lab can be found here:

By implementing the Digital Flagship mobile design lab, this office provides a dedicated think tank space for students to work and create new ideas.  Knowing that a student’s ideas may be novel and rudimentary, the educators within the mobile design lab connect the student with other resources on campus.  This facilitates keeping their idea supported, as well as offering technology resources, such as app coding, to take their idea off the ground. As stated by Cory Tressler, Director of Learning Programs and Digital Flagship, “It’s a 34-foot bus that we’ll be able to take to all of our campuses and do outreach across the state around design thinking, mobile app development, coding, and how to use technology in teaching and learning as a student, as a professor or staff…So it’s really a physical, mobile design space for us, but also an outreach vehicle to educate everybody in our community” (Ohio State News, 2019).  Connecting to Ohio State’s land grant university mission, the mobile design lab helps educate students throughout the state to work with and to diminish the digital divide.

Ohio State iPad Initiative

Related to the digital divide in K-12 education is the lack of access and affordability of technology in educational settings.  Dr. Michael V. Drake, the current President of Ohio State, has created a strategic plan with six pillars, which include teaching & learning, access, affordability, & excellence, research & creative expression, academic health care, and operational excellence & resource stewardship (Ohio State, Office of the President, n.d.).  The Digital Flagship Office, and specifically the iPad Initiative connects with the strategic plan by touching on the pillars of teaching & learning, access, affordability & excellence, and research & creative expression. The Digital Flagship Office and the iPad Initiative are making higher education more accessible than ever before.

Though more than an iPad Initiative, Ohio State’s Digital Flagship Office is best known at Ohio State for providing this piece of technology to all incoming first year students.  This initiative allows for students to pick up their iPad during New Student Orientation and keep the device post-graduation if enrolled full time throughout their educational career (Technology, 2019).  We had the opportunity to sit down with five current first year students at Ohio State who shared their stories about what technology looked like during their K-12 educational journey and how the iPad Initiative has influenced their first year at Ohio State.  Three of the five students were willing to publicly share their story which can be accessed below.


Through the student interviews, we determined that there was not a one size fits all.  The self-disclosed demographics of the interviewees included:

  • Student #1: Student #1 is a white male from an upper-middle class Ohio family.  Technology was available in his home growing up and he built a personal computer in high school.  This student didn’t have the opportunity to take technology classes in his K-12 years. Student #1 enjoys having the iPad, but really only uses it to take notes and watch Netflix.  This student prefers Windows to Macs. Over time, this student believes the program will become more robust when all students have iPads and faculty can incorporate this technology across the board.


  • Student #2: Student #2 is a white female from an upper-middle class family from New Jersey. She contends that technology was highly prevalent in her K-12 community.  Looking back to middle school, she remembers that teachers could rent out a cart of MacBooks or iPads. In high school, each student was given a Chromebook that they were able to use during the academic year and summer.  When coming to Ohio State, this student decided to not purchase a computer or laptop anticipating that she would be able to complete all work on the iPad. At this time, it is her belief that she only needs the iPad to successfully complete her work.  Related to her textbook use, she has tried using e-textbooks, but has decided she is more at ease resorting to the traditional paper textbook.


  • Student #3: Student #3 is an African American male from a middle-class family in Ohio.  Growing up with 6 siblings, this student stated he had 1 family computer that his mom mainly used for work.  Eventually, in high school, he received an iPod. During his K-12 education, this student stated he had a computer lab in both primary and middle school, where he would go for a supplemental class 2-3 times per week.  Here he learned the essential skill of keyboarding.  Upon enrolling at Ohio State, this student did not know he was being provided an iPad until he arrived at orientation, which made him very excited. He had received a PC computer for graduation, so he is currently using both devices.  Due to having an iPod in high school, this student felt as if he is savvy enough with the iPad to use it in class. Also, as he is a Chemistry major, he is very pleased that his textbook could be viewed online for free, which he believes saved him over $150.


  • Student #4: Student #4 is a female international student from India.  During her K-12 years she states that there was no technology in her classrooms and everything was done by paper and pencil.  Her instructors used chalkboards and chalk to teach the lessons. Though living and being educated in one of the most affluent schools in her area, she states that her teachers preferred this mode of instruction.  She remembers her dad bringing home a work computer and she received her first cell phone when she was 16. This student knew she was getting an iPad prior to Ohio State and was very excited as this would be her own device, that would not need to be shared with the family.  After having the iPad, she uses it in class to view a PowerPoint that the teacher may post, but typically she employs paper and pen, the medium with which she is most familiar. Overall, she believes she needs much more training on this device and would enjoy learning more from operating the iPad, to full academic use.


  • Student #5: Student #5, a female from Ohio, states she grew up in a lower-middle class family.  As her mom did not work, and her dad was a manager at a local Kroger, she said there was no need for a computer at home.  The only access she had to a computer was at her high school, where she would typically come in early in the morning or stay after school to type her papers.  She remembers in high school going to the local public library to type her college admissions essay. When coming to Ohio State, she was very excited to receive an iPad, as this would help her save hundreds of dollars on purchasing a laptop.  Presently, this student is solely using the iPad and does not plan to purchase further technology.  If she needs anything else, she uses the university library computers for free.  She wants to know more about how to use the iPad and desires that her professors would integrate this more comprehensively into the classroom, which would increase her comfort with the technology.

Overall, the students who were interviewed seemed grateful to receive the iPad, but had not seen a full integration of the device into their Ohio State classrooms.  Also, though the Digital Flagship Office provides trainings to the students (Digital Flagship Events can be located on the lower left of the webpage), such as iPad office hours and mobile design lab stops, students may not be aware of these events.  In regard to the digital divide following these students into their collegiate career, it is evident that the iPads have helped in terms of access and affordability as some students have selected to not purchase another piece of technology because of this initiative.  Another benefit is that they have found purchasing e-textbooks to be more cost effective. Relative to Dr. Drake’s strategic plan, it seems as if students would appreciate more in the realm of teaching and learning, when using the iPad in class.


The questions regarding the digital divide remain: What are the inequities in technology within K-12 education and how is Ohio State and the Digital Flagship Office looking to break this digital divide?  Research supports that the first level digital divide shows valid inequities in access to technology among incoming student populations.  This can be attributed in part to socioeconomic factors.  Yet, another contributing factor is societal issues.  The second level of the digital divide references the knowledge and use of technology.  Within this level students are divided based on those who have technology and those who do not, in addition to who can use it effectively to advance their educational career.  Furthermore, students are needing constant product training, updating, and upkeep to ensure their devices are running efficiently and helping them stay competitive within the classroom.

As Ohio State is a land grant university, they are to educate all in Ohio and provide access to higher education to break down both the first and second levels of the digital divide before and during their time at Ohio State.  Through the Office of Digital Flagship, the university is looking to afford access to technology both within the university and preparing students for post-graduation employment opportunities.  By providing a 1-1 iPad Initiative, Ohio State is committing to granting access to students and to make higher education more equitable, taking into consideration many of the challenges and inequities that students face in the realm of education.


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