The hidden struggle to stay online hurts student equality

"Technology maintenance" widens the digital divide.
Many students are affected by "technology maintenance" issues, and the unreliability of old equipment can be related to their academic performance. (Pixabay)
Listen9:50

The digital divide refers to the line between those who have easy access to communications tech, and those who don't. But the reality of digital access is complicated and nuanced, especially for students.


Access is often related to affordability issues. People living in isolated areas may have access issues due to geography. It can be the availability of physical devices like cell phones and laptops, as well as internet access.

And just having access to tech devices does not always mean equal access. Being 'under-connected' by an old cell phone, clunky laptop, or unreliable internet connection can widen the digital divide.

Amy Gonzales, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, examined the digital inequalities created by that struggle to maintain access through what she calls "technology maintenance."  
Amy Gonzales (Amy Gonzales)

She told Spark host Nora Young that technological maintenance refers to "the constant work that any of us have to go through to stay connected to digital technologies."

For her latest study, she and her team wanted to examine the effect of technology problems on student achievement by conducting surveys and focus groups with U.S. college students.


Of the 750 students they interviewed, every single one of them had a cellphone, but they discovered that many of those students still struggle to stay connected. "About 20 percent of them consistently reported having periods of breakdown," Gonzales said.  

They found an association between students who reported more problems with their laptops and academic performance. Gonzales said this suggests that "perhaps there is some effect on ability to succeed if you can't reliably assume your laptop is going to work when you need it to."  

To deal with these technology maintenance issues, many students turned to professors to ask for extensions on assignments, would borrow devices from friends or ask family to help with repair costs. However, Gonzales found that these solutions can be complicated.

"It was also not surprising to find that students with more resources had more people to turn to," Gonzales said.

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