Across the academy, instructors are being urged to incorporate more technology in their teaching; blended classrooms, flipped classrooms, and hybrid or online courses are trendy new pedagogy. Despite my belief that there are real benefits to the judicious use of technology in teaching and learning, I am concerned about the way in which the shift to the digital interface could widen, not reduce, the digital divide. 
This post was prompted by a discussion with a QC adjunct colleague who has encountered trouble with the increased emphasis on the virtual learning environment, including reliance on CUNY’s course management system, Blackboard, as well as other online tools such as WordPress (QWriting), and other assorted platforms. Example: the instructor posts readings online via the Bb site (thinking that this will save the students textbook money); if students do not have the technology tools and access to the internet from home, they are challenged to even get the readings done. Another example: if the instructor utilizes WordPress and requires two to three posts a week (including comments), students without the digital access are disenfranchised and alienated by this requirement.
But what about the computer labs on campus? Shouldn’t the students be able to utilize those as a resource? They can print their readings and post their assignments at the labs, right?
Well, that sounds like a nice, neat solution but reality is not that smooth. For some students, particularly the ones who do not have the advantages of access from home, schedules are very tight (classes, work, child care, etc.); they cannot spend hours every week doing their work, downloading materials and uploading assignments in the computer labs on campus.
The colleague I spoke with heard directly from one student that s/he received a grade of “F” due to access challenges in a previous “web-enhanced” course; the adjunct also experienced extreme antagonism from a different student whose digital literacy and confidence were not enough to keep up with the fundamentals of the blended course requirements, let alone the course content. So, I pose the question: how do we accommodate these challenges? How do we ensure that our shift to a different teaching/learning paradigm which includes digital practices does not leave behind the students who are already underprivileged – students who have not acquired the skills or access necessary to succeed with these new requirements?
First, I want to promote the fact that CUNY delineates different modes of instruction. Check out the detailed explanations on the Queens College CTL site: http://ctl.qc.cuny.edu/mode-of-instruction/. Unfortunately, these modes of instruction are not indicated to students when they register – even though there is the ability to post them in CUNYFirst. On the one hand, departments need to do a better job of collecting that information from their adjuncts at the time of course assignments and updating the courses on CUNYFirst before the students register; on the other hand, faculty need to have the mode of instruction clearly indicated on their syllabi along with the requirements. Unfortunately, finding out the first day of class is often too late for students. They can always drop, of course, but finding an equivalent, required class at the same day/time in a mode of instruction with which they are comfortable can be a challenge, to say the least.
Second, one of my typical moves is to book a computer lab early in the semester if I am utilizing any platform other than Bb. I walk the students through sign-up (of QWriting, Wikispaces, whatever) and we practice the fundamentals together. This has worked to solve some of the literacy and confidence issues, but still does not address the access problem. (It’s also not always easy to get a lab on the day/time you prefer.)
What else can we do to accommodate or assist students in our courses who may already be on the bottom side of the digital divide? I look forward to the ideas and suggestions.