Like many of you, I’ve been online a fair bit lately. This is week six of working from home as a community college librarian. We’ve been able to run the library remotely, because we already had services in place to make it easy for students reach out for assistance online, and to use our website as a virtual branch of the library. Yes, we’ve closed off access to our print collections right now, but we are able to help students complete research assignments via our online resources. They can get what they need to succeed.
Well, that is the theory. And to my college’s credit, our leadership polled students about their technology and internet needs as soon as they decided to make the switch to online only classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, before students had returned from spring break. They are actively working to ensure everyone taking classes can complete their work online. But around the country and the world, COVID-19 is revealing the open secret our society has not faced: digital equity is a long way off. As with so many other kinds of inequity, people who could most benefit from digital inclusion already face other systemic barriers to opportunity. Something I’ve written about before.
I’m sure you’ve read about K-12 students facing technology challenges as their schools have closed; if you haven’t, Klint Finley’s Wired article provides insight into the current problem as well as a thorough look at how we’ve ignored or even, in the past three and a half years, openly undermined, the question of equitable access to broadband. Even as it has become almost impossible to get an education, find a job, access government documents (including benefits and court documents), etc. without internet. (If you’ve been reading Nocturnal Librarian for a long time you know this is one reason public libraries are so important, because they help close the digital divide). Last week I also read a very thought provoking piece by Georgia university system students who highlighted the equity issues of their online-only courses, including the challenges rural students in particular have with internet access.
I have also given what I now see is cursory attention to the problem of algorithms — by which I mean, I’ve read (and written) about them in terms of teaching information literacy, and worried about them as a social justice issue. But recently, I read an article about digital redlining in the newsletter of the Library Instruction Round Table. I took some of the links in the article and fell into a world of eye-opening ways that housing discrimination, banking, hiring, and other everyday life activities are impacted by the ways that algorithms use data that is informed by already institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and gender inequality and perpetuates it.
And yes, how higher ed is not without its own digital redlining, even, and perhaps especially, according to professors Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik, at community colleges. As they put it, when explaining what digital redlining is, “It may have to do with the growing sense that digital justice isn’t only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is.”
I am not entirely empowered to solve digital equity issues like broadband access and redlining. None of us are, single-handedly. And I am fortunate to work somewhere where diversity, equity, and inclusion are values we aspire to live by, not just talk about, so I know we are working on some of these issues. That said, I feel a renewed sense of responsibility to make sure my elected officials know we need a better national solution to broadband inequality. And I am going to try to use what I’ve learned to reconsider the student experience at our library from a digital equity perspective, especially now as our we live through COVID-19 physical distancing.