By Helen Farley, Digital Life Lab, University of Southern Queensland
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Melbourne and talk to some of the folk from Corrections Victoria responsible for facilitating education for prisoners. We were reflecting on how much distance education had changed over the past ten or so years. They expressed their dismay at how much universities had moved online and away from supplying hard copy materials. I concurred, after all my own university, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), had moved entirely online from Semester 1 2015. But in moving away from the supply of hard copy, we have potentially excluded some cohorts that were already operating at a disadvantage. These potential students include prisoners, those in regional, rural and remote communities, those international students living in areas of the world where the ICT infrastructure is not so good, and those people who could just not afford either the technology or the internet access.
We discussed the decreasing willingness of universities to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for incarcerated students. Outside of the project that I lead, ‘Making the Connection’, the support of incarcerated students very often relies on the good will of academic and administrative staff whose time is squeezed ever tighter with teaching and research commitments. When courses and programs are designed for online delivery, adjusting those for students without internet access can be enormously time consuming. Staff are concerned about copyright compliance, meeting aspirations for graduate attributes and even accreditation with professional bodies. Adjusting assessments can be difficult. How do you modify an online group assignment for an individual who is offline and still meet assessment objectives?
While I was in Melbourne, I visited a prison and talked to some prisoners who wanted to enrol at USQ. The conversations echoed many similar ones I have had right across the country over the past few years. They talked to me about programs they wanted to enroll in and what they hoped to do with these programs. Though no career practitioner, I could tell them that those programs would not give them the outcomes that they would need. And it occurred to me that in formulating a career plan, they had turned to the only resources available to them: overworked education officers and peers who may or may not have studied at some point in the past. These aspirational prisoners could not look up programs and outcomes, or careers, recommendations, reviews or any of the other things that we people with ample internet access take for granted. In thinking about the lack of access in prisons, I had thought about not being able to access coursework but not about everything else that surrounds it including information about careers or the student support that USQ works hard to make available to our online students. Even assessment submission becomes a hurdle that for many is too big to cross.
There is no denying that technology has opened doors that we could not have imagined even 20 years ago. We can browse the contents of the world’s libraries and I could count on one hand the number of times I go to my own library in a year, even though it is only a few minutes’ walk away. I can see the smiling face of a colleague on the other side of the world with web conferencing. And shared documents make collaboration a breeze. But for those without internet access, the resources they can access are ever diminishing. When we are becoming more aware than ever of the importance of diversity and equity, why do we continue to turn a blind eye to the ‘have nots’?
If this is a question that you are pondering, or any other aspects of digital equity, please join us for the first Digital Equity SIG webinar to be held on Thursday 1 March at 2pm AEDT. The webinar can be accessed via Zoom. You will find other time zones for the session here and for additional information on the Digital Equity SIG and the webinar, go here.