The digital divide was a known issue before 2020, and universities were accustomed well before Covid-19 struck to providing things like computer lab space, laptops on loan, and free software to students whose personal circumstances meant they had less access to technology – even if the need always seems to be greater than the resource available.
But now, as higher education plans for a different kind of post-Covid future, one in which learning, student services, and student life take a more blended character, universities must confront the scale and impact of that divide in ways they have not had to do before.
Access to technology – and the skills to use it – as former Office for Students chair Michael Barber observes in the recent Gravity Assist report on digital learning and teaching, is of “paramount importance” for providers and policymakers seeking to enable student success. The report proposes six key elements of “digital access” including infrastructure, connectivity, expert instruction and a quiet place to study, as well as the requisite hardware and software.
The Gravity Assist report usefully breaks down the concept of the digital divide, but there’s also a strong case for building on that work to develop our collective understanding further. One option is to consider the idea of “digital capital” as a lens for understanding how access to and engagement with digital technology can shape students’ opportunities and future life chances.
In Digital capital: a Bourdeusian perspective on the digital divide (2020) Massimo Ragnedda and Maria Laura Ruiu make the case for digital as a distinctive “capital” alongside the more familiar concepts of social capital, political capital, economic capital and cultural capital.
The implications of this paradigm is that it cannot always be assumed that the issue is primarily about access to digital environments, such as university VLEs or media streaming services, or about provision of training, though both may be useful parts of the overall picture.
It’s about developing a deeper understanding of the ways that those digital environments integrate with offline environments, and the patterns of inclusion or exclusion that result, with implications not just for the specific learning environment but for longer term student outcomes, and experience.
Understanding how the digital divide works in practice, in real world situations, means the best possible ways can be found to address it for specific students’ circumstances.
Ragnedda and Ruiu argue:
[D]igital capital is required to inhabit and operate successfully within the digital arena and to get the most out of it. However, since the difference between online and offline is blurring and since social and digital inequalities are so firmly intertwined, digital capital is increasingly important in individual everyday life, where, first, the access to ICTs and, then, the competences in using them are vital elements to operate in a digital enabled society…Digital capital, as we shall see, like other kinds of capital, is unequally distributed and, as such, tends to reinforce and influence social inequalities.
Arguably, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of these issues, which are nevertheless essential to consider as part of any digital transformation programme. Offering offline alternatives, for example, may mitigate an immediate issue of accessibility (though not if the student in question has other barriers that make online access preferable to in-person) but it does not make that student better prepared to be a citizen of a world in which digital competence and access are precursors to full and equal participation.
Our contribution to the debate, Netpotism, a reflection on the employer response to the opportunities presented by digital recruitment, finds that technology, which ought to be a huge leveller in terms of creating new pathways into employment and connections with employers for graduating students, is not delivering on its promise.
In fact, many employers are swapping one closed network for another, relying on existing contacts, and recommendations from friends, family and colleagues to meet potential recruits, even online.
Our research, which was conducted in early March 2021, with 974 current students and recent graduates, and 502 HR decision makers in UK businesses, found that the majority of employers have become more reliant on career and job sites, with a lower reliance on campus-based routes that specifically target graduates, such as careers fairs and student ambassador programmes.
63 per cent said they were more reliant on online professional networks such as LinkedIn, and more than half said they were more reliant on personal and word of mouth recommendations (57 per cent), and on social media (53 per cent). Citing increasing financial pressure, a fifth of HR decision makers said they prefer to hire someone they already know as they are less of a risk.
All this is to some extent understandable under the circumstances, and these actions may feel lower risk at the time, but if the outcome is the erosion or stagnation of diversity in their workforce and an associated loss of innovation, and diversity of thought and experience, these organisations are making themselves more vulnerable in the long term.
It’s also impacting on student perceptions of “netpotism”: 33 per cent believe that job applications and interviews are biased towards those with existing connections, and 15 per cent feel excluded from job opportunities due to their background.
Exploring students’ and graduates’ experiences of job seeking, we found that while practical barriers do exist – 34 per cent cited poor internet connection as a barrier during virtual interviews, and 24 per cent not enough space or quiet – there are also cultural or structural challenges. 15 per cent cited not knowing interview etiquette, and 15 per cent said they had accidentally shared the wrong thing onscreen.
So given that 66 per cent of employers said they plan to conduct more of the recruitment process online in the future, this is one area where a lack of digital capital actively structures access to opportunity – and interacts with all the other possible barriers students and graduates face in the labour market.
Our research suggests that inclusion is very much a mindset, not a toolkit. We recommend that students be supported to access the technology they need – and while laptops may be in scarce supply in some households, 98 per cent of people aged 16-24 have access to a mobile device, which indicates the importance of mobile-enabled technologies.
The research also speaks to the importance of developing digital capital – competence and confidence in using, not just recruitment tools, but social networking sites, knowing what to say to make a connection with an employer and online interview and assessment centre hygiene and etiquette – an area where careers services can certainly play a useful role.
But the capitals lens also suggests measures to boost students’ digital access and competence can only ever chip away at entrenched inequalities. That’s why we also recommend that employers consider a more proactive approach to recruitment in the early talent market – realising the promise of technology to cast their net further and wider, identify and connect with possible recruits, and actively scrutinising whether established recruitment practices are inadvertently excluding potentially great candidates from consideration.
University careers services might also want to consider these findings when suggesting and actively supporting employers to improve their graduate recruitment practice. 47 per cent of HR decision makers indicated to us that they are taking steps to make it easier for candidates to conduct online interviews during the pandemic. The door is clearly open for fresh thinking, so let’s work together to realise the potential of digital technology to deliver diverse and dynamic graduate recruitment.
This article is published in association with Handshake. You can download the full Netpotism research paper here.