In spring 2020, as hundreds of schools shut down across the U.S., faculty and staff made heroic efforts to ensure the continuity of their students’ education.
For some students, the closure abruptly deprived them of access to IT services, forcing them to write their class essays on their phones. Administrative staff worked long hours to distribute devices to students or dropped laptops off on student porches—all in response to a suddenly visible need, this Dell white paper says.
“The need became very apparent,” says Danielle Rourke, a senior higher education strategist at Dell, who is in frequent contact with college administrators. “At the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was sent home, they were hearing from students, schools were noticing students weren’t logging in, they weren’t completing things—so they did take it upon themselves to try and figure out ways to help.”
The digital divide between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds is nothing new, but the shutdown of 2020 opened the eyes of schools to the level of disparity across the student body. In recent years, some schools have embarked on one-to-one device programs in response to the divide by providing students access to personal laptops through a range of purchase or loan programs.
Jamie Wittenberg is assistant dean for research and innovation strategies at the University of Colorado Boulder, a public research university with about 30,000 students.
“All of a sudden our highest risk students were unable to use our public facilities in the libraries and their courses were all online.” The University of Colorado Boulder introduced a one-to-one program in 2021.
“For a student who didn’t have access to the technology, they were doubly hit by these intersecting areas of inequality. We wanted to try to level the playing field,” Wittenberg says.
Learning from K-12
The logic of a one-to-one device program is relatively simple: Each student has access to their own laptop or device and those devices are configured specifically for that student’s learning journey. One-to-one programs give colleges and universities the opportunity to secure the devices and tailor their configurations—like storage space and computing power—to their students’ academic activities.
For more than a decade, one-to-one programs have existed in the K-12 system. In the Frenship Independent School District in Texas, educators say the program has helped teachers create a personalized, student-centered experience, and encouraged young people to take responsibility for their learning.
Unlike K-12, higher education has traditionally relied on the presence of computer labs, or on students themselves bringing their own devices (BYOD) to school. But while BYOD is convenient, it masks a number of problems. Students may not have devices to bring with them or may have been given hand-me-downs by relatives or friends which may be slow or outdated; some devices may lack the capability to conduct video-conferencing and share material easily online.
“If you have a computer that’s not effective, that’s almost as bad as not having a computer at all,” Wittenberg says.