Digital inequality isn’t just about access to a device.

Digital inequality has come more to the forefront of discussion with the onset of COVID 19 and the implementation of remote learning.  This is something that I think about regularly as it touches my life in multiple ways.  It isn’t just as a teacher, but also as a parent, and the lack of access affects my extended family members.  I think it is critical that we keep this issue in our minds as many schools are continuing to teach remotely and those that are not, are in a state in which they could be switched to remotes at any time.  It often appears that everyone has access to technology. This easy to understand why there is the appearance that everyone is connected. According to the Pew research 96% of Americans own a cell phone and 86%  own smart phones. They also report that approximately 75% of Americans own some type of computer while approximately 50% own a tablet an 50% own an e-reader. With numbers like this it is easy to believe that everyone is connected and that they have access to information. Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more complicated than that, when it comes to technology for educational purposes.

In the article, Technology Problems and Student Achievement Gaps A Validation and Extension of the Technology Maintenance Construct, by Amy L. Gonzales, Jessica McCory Calarco, and Teresa K. Lynch, it is presented that while ownership of technology has become nearly universal there has become a new hinderance that is contributing to the digital divide. This contributor is access to reliable internet, and even can extend to the quality of technology one has access to. They refer to this as technology maintenance. In their research Gonzales et. al (2018) discovered that challenges that even highly connected people faced included broken hardware, data limits, and maintain connections. Those of lower socio-economic status and students of color experience the greatest impacts of these hardships.

Identifying Technology maintenance

Gonzales et al (2018) explain that the concept behind technology maintenance is that as technology access increases, the digital divide will be exasperated by inequalities in the ability to maintain access. The article explains that multiple studies have shown that lower income people often rely on technology that is broken, borrowed or unstable causing a cycle or disconnection. Gonzales et al (2018) point out that there are financial and social resources that are required to maintain access and these resource requirements both originate and contribute to socio-economic inequalities from the digital divide. Gonzales et al (2018) point out that looking at the how people use technology is only one aspect. It is argued “that the biggest concern is not always concerning access, but the divide among information ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ resulting from the ways in which people use the internet” (Gonzales 2018). Also to be considered is the quality and functionality, because those from lower socioeconomic conditions often rely on lesser quality technology.


Information and communication technology are extremely prevalent at universities.  Information provided in the research, from a study by PEW, shared the following data on technology usage: internet 97%, social media 89%, and cell phone ownership 98%  (Gonzales, 2018, p. 7). Use of internet and cell phones is significantly more common among college students than their same aged young adult peers (age 18-24) (Gonzales, 2018 p.7).

Digital communication is beneficial for college students because it allows for greater interaction with peers, instructor and course content. It also allows for more opportunities for classmate collaboration, to assist in lowering anxiety, and allowing the instructor to observe the progress of students (Gonzales 2018, p.7). With the role that technology is playing it is practical to think that those who lack technology may be at a disadvantage.

There is a lack of research at the college level about technology maintenance. However, research done at the elementary and secondary levels have shown that families from lower and middle socio-economic status often face challenges because of being under-connected from disconnections, shared access, and slow or mobile-in-home service (Gonzales 2018, p.8). Research also emphasizes the cope methods of low-income high schools in order to be academically competitive with their peers. These findings correlate the hardships to struggles with academics. For example, having to work takes away from time spent on school work therefore, decreasing academic performance. (Gonzales, 2018 p. 8).  Even with this research, it is uncertain if the same findings are valid for university students.

Research conclusions

In the area of ownership, the research was reflective of the previous information that was presented by the PEW research that was provided. Nearly every student owned a laptop or a smartphone. Approximately 1/3 of students owned a flip-phone and a tablet and 40% owned a printer (Gonzales 2018, p.16).

Access was more varied. Most had been provided their laptop (60%), 19% had purchased their own laptop, and only 2% had a used laptop. Data on cellphones was similar in nature. Except that 20% bought their own phone and 11% of students paid for their full monthly bill (Gonzales 2018, p. 16).

With such universal ownership of devices, accessibility wasn’t perceived as standard amongst students. Most students felt their laptop and cellphone were very dependable (55% laptops, 68% cellphones), but disruptions to laptops of at least once a month were reported by 21% of students. Cellphones faired a little better with only 17% of students reporting disruptions of once a month or more.

What role did Socio-Economic status (SES) play in technology maintenance?

When it came to owning a device, the research showed the SES had little role in owning technology. The sustaining of access was a bit more mixed. When it came to laptops there wasn’t a correlation between sustained access and SES. When it came to cellphones it was more complicated. Students with lower SES background faced more likelihood of weekly disruptions but less likely to face annual disruptions. Yet students from higher SES were more likely to  face disruptions annually. Students of color faced the most problems with breakdowns and functions of devices (Gonzales 2018, p.16).

Research for this article concluded that students from higher SES had an easier time coping with disruptions to their access than those from lower SES.  This was because they were more likely to have a person they could borrow from or ask for money if needed. They were less likely to use a school supplied computer.

Factors that negatively impacted GPA

There were several specific factors which related to negatively impacting student’s GPA’s. These were students who had poorly functioning laptops or those that broke down regularly, those who had contracts for their cellphones, and students who had other people paying for their overages on their cellphones (Gonzales 2018 p. 20) Disruptions is functioning devices or access will cause students delays in learning and interaction with classmates.

Personal Reflections

The study focused on university students and asked questions such as how satisfied are you with the quality of your laptop/phone?  That to me is very subjective. A “brand new” phone for one person might be a handed down phone that is still an upgrade for them and they could be very satisfied with it because it is better than what they had before. Yet that same phone might be completely unsatisfactory for the next person. This same idea can also be applied to the question how well does your cellphone/laptop work?

When I think about this topic and the SES implications, I can see the reflection on the students I am serving. I recently did a quick poll of who had devices and internet access. While most families did have device but those who are of lower SES were very upfront and stated that their device was old, didn’t work well, or would be shared among several people and their lack of internet. As a school we can sign out devices to them and as a community, specific companies have stepped up to help provide internet for families (last year school year). Unfortunately, this year the companies have not offered the same flexibility with providing service to families. There are also families who live in locations that cannot receive internet consistently. If schools aren’t providing the technology for the families what steps can be done to provide this? There was a section in the Gonzales et al article that I found interesting. It stated:

“the construct of technology maintenance is consistent with a stratification model of digital adoption (Norris, 2001, van Dijk, 2005), and builds on cultural-critical work on breakdown and repair as a mode of understanding stratification (Graham & Thrift, 2007). Consistent with the rich-get-richer effect of media diffusion, digital innovations may exacerbate social inequalities when the privileged exploit and embed digital technology in everyday social functioning.”

This makes me wonder if society is intentionally setting certain groups of people up for success and others for failure. The fact is the marketplace is flooded with a variety of devices that range in capabilities and quality and the more you pay the more you get. The newer it is the easier it interacts with current platforms and embedded functions. That right there makes the playing field uneven.  It isn’t reasonable to believe that we can provide the same level of technological devices to everyone. Schools be it private, public, or university don’t have them. We aren’t set up to do so. How do we help those who have to overcome the challenges of uncertain access and devices that are breaking or not up to date?


Gonzales, A. L., McCrory Calarco, J., & Lynch, T. (2020). Technology problems and student achievement gaps: A validation and extension of the technology maintenance construct. Communication Research, 47(5), 750–770.

Mobile Fact Sheet (June 12, 2019). PEW research Center Internet & Technology. Retrieved September 12, 2020,  from

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