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The ‘digital divide’

'What is the 'digital divide' and how does it impact inclusive learning? This article delves into this concept.
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© University of York

The ‘digital divide’ is a major barrier to inclusive practices generally, but has particular significance for online design and delivery. Originally posited as a binary between those with access to digital technology and those without, ‘digital divide’ is now recognised as more nuanced.

Digital divide: The term “digital divide” refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities [OECD, 2006]. (Link may require sign in).

The digital divide is not a binary. There are multiple factors which must be considered in order to avoid digital exclusion, for example:

  • Access to an internet enabled device
  • Familiarity and skills with the device
  • Stable internet connection with good bandwidth
  • Access to required software and digital tools
  • Familiarity skills with required software and digital tools
  • Motivation to use online resources or services, as well as to develop and maintain the necessary skills

Issues with any of these elements can prove a barrier to access and thus exacerbate the digital divide.

For example, even with a stable internet connection and sufficient bandwidth, and with access to suitable devices and software, those without the necessary skill sets can still be excluded. Young people who have grown up with access to digital devices, technology and media are often assumed to have good information literacy and digital skills, but this is often not the case. They may be extremely skilled in certain devices or uses of digital tools, but lack wider skills or understanding of the full functionality of the tools and devices which they use.

Device access also plays a big role in the digital divide . According to the Ofcom 2020 report, 71% of all measured time spent online was on smartphones, with 35% of UK internet users only accessing the internet from mobile devices. But in many cases, online resources are not fully compatible with all mobile device access. For example, for a student, reading online journal articles on a phone may be difficult and a laptop to access those resources would be preferable. Similarly, whilst the increase in internet usage via phones has led to a general improvement in websites being mobile responsive and therefore more easily used when accessed on a smartphone, this is not universal.

An individual with strong digital skills and good provision of technology might still be hampered by geography. Economically deprived and geographically remote areas typically have poor network infrastructure, leading to issues with poor bandwidth and reliability of connection which can act as a significant barrier to access to and engagement with education. The sudden forced switch to online services and teaching prompted by COVID pandemic lockdowns highlighted these issues around access to technology, especially the need for reliable broadband internet access.

So what are things we can do to address these issues? Here are some key points to implement, when thinking about some of the digital/online work you may have to complete during higher education:

  • Don’t make assumptions. Do not assume a certain level of skill from other students and staff, or that everyone has access to particular devices or pieces of software
  • Try to be platform neutral. If recommending an app, think about whether it works on both Android and Apple devices, if designing one, please make sure that it does! If designing web pages, make sure these are mobile responsive. Try out your webpages on different screen sizes – you want people to be able to access your content from different kinds of device.
  • When designing documents or web content, use a clear and consistent design. With webpages be clear and consistent in your navigation.
  • If you can, offer offline options. If you can offer material online, try to make downloadable files possible. This is helpful for those without stable internet access, as well as for those who may need to convert files for accessibility reasons.
  • If running an online event, don’t insist participants have cameras on. Aside from not all participants feeling comfortable using cameras, going audio only significantly reduces bandwidth use, so is helpful for those with poor internet connectivity.
  • Use jargon free explanations and descriptions. Be as clear as you can when writing descriptions and explanations – try to be as accurate as possible whilst avoiding overly technical terminology. Also be mindful that some people may not have English as a first language.


References and Further reading from selected open access sources

JISC. “Students say universities must learn from the pandemic to improve higher education”. 7 September 2021

Kirschner, Paul A, and Pedro De Bruyckere. ‘The Myths of the Digital Native and the Multitasker’. Teaching and Teacher Education 67 (2017): 135–42. Accessed doi:10.1016/j.tate.2017.06.001. (Link may require sign in).

Ofcom. Online Nation 2020 Report. Published 24 June 2020.

Office for National Statistics. Internet access – households and individuals, Great Britain: 2020: ‘Internet access in Great Britain, including how many people have internet access, what they use it for and online shopping’. Released 7 August 2020.

Philip, Lorna, Caitlin Cottrill, John Farrington, Fiona Williams, and Fiona Ashmore. ‘The Digital Divide: Patterns, Policy and Scenarios for Connecting the ‘final Few’ in Rural Communities Across Great Britain’., Journal of Rural Studies 54 (2017): 386–98. Accessed doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2016.12.002. (Link may require sign in).

Serrano‐Cinca, C, J. F Muñoz‐Soro, and I Brusca. ‘A Multivariate Study of Internet Use and the Digital Divide’. Social Science Quarterly 99, no. 4 (2018): 1409–25. Accessed doi:10.1111/ssqu.12504. (Link may require sign in).

Trendall, Sam. ‘Settlement scheme app goes live on iPhone’. Public website. 18 October 2019.

Wheeler, Brian. ‘Brexit: UK government’s battle with Apple over EU citizens app’. BBC News website. 1 November 2018

© University of York
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