The impact of the digital divide on student mobility

“We had to pay three times more than we were initially paying for broadband internet so that I could attend my virtual classes. I was always nervous that I would experience a power cut in the middle of my classes or worse in the middle of an assessment… We had to make sure the generator was always readily available, which came at an extra cost as it runs on fuel.” Such was the experience of Zimbabwean student Tinashe*, whose plans to start a masters degree in the United Kingdom were interrupted by COVID-19.

Having overcome what Tinashe calls “bumps along the road” – including not being able to take the required IELTS English language test due to restrictions in Zimbabwe and later not being able to travel to the UK when a lockdown prohibited travel – the idea of studying abroad has taken on unexpected and significant financial and psycho-social costs.

Tinashe is not alone. For thousands of international students from low-income countries and poorer socio-economic backgrounds, the pandemic has put up significant barriers to their plans to study (or continue studying) abroad. Many were forced to return home whereas others, like Tinashe, had to defer their course start date and eventually begin their courses at a distance.

The digital divide

The pandemic-induced costs of studying abroad are not only financial and psycho-social but technological. Globally, the digital divide has shown that where access to the internet is very high (for instance, in North America where the internet penetration rate is 90% and Europe where it is 87%), students find it easier to switch from face-to-face to virtual classes than those in regions that are much less connected (such as in Africa, where the internet penetration rate is 43%).

In many countries this figure is even lower: in Tajikistan (Central Asia), for example, only 3% of the population have a home broadband connection and most students are reliant on mobile data, which costs more than in any other ex-Soviet country.

The digital divide also shows up within countries. In the United States, for example, there are systemic racial barriers to both internet access and technology. In Thailand, a quarter of university students are from poor families, which has a bearing on access to equipment and connectivity even though, like in the US, the country’s overall digital infrastructure is good.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, marked differences in internet availability and speed disadvantage higher education institutions in remote areas as well as students who have had to return home to rural areas.

Students on the thin edge of the digital divide have more limited access to online resources and international experiences than their counterparts. They are ‘being left behind with e-learning’ when they don’t have electricity, can’t afford mobile data and don’t have access to training to learn how to use online learning tools and develop digital literacies.

Time for change in student mobility

The transition from teaching, learning and research mainly in-person to almost exclusively remote delivery during the pandemic is well known and, as time passes, is becoming better documented. The impact of the digital divide, as our brief review above showed, is also well recognised.

However, there has been less consideration of the connections between the digital divide and the implications this has for student mobility. Yet within weeks of the pandemic’s spread, an International Association of Universities survey in over 100 countries found that 60% of universities and colleges around the world had managed to come up with alternatives to physical student mobility.

Furthermore, existing mobility programmes such as Erasmus Mundus have made significant efforts to shift programming online. Inter-university consortia such as the Association of Pacific Rim Universities and the Hemispheric University Consortium in the Americas have set up new virtual forms of student exchange to help students remain connected.

It’s worth noting that, while the prospects for doing things differently in the world of student mobility in the light of the pandemic are ripe, work in the realm of virtual student mobility – sometimes discussed as Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) – has been developing since the turn of the century along with the evolution of information and communications technologies.

Emergency virtual student mobility

To bring together existing efforts and track pandemic-inspired responses around the world, UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO-IESALC) launched a project on virtual student mobility (VSM) in late 2020.

We define VSM as “a form of mobility that uses information and communication technologies to facilitate cross-border and-or inter-institutional academic, cultural and experiential exchanges and collaboration. VSM can be embedded as part of the regular delivery of exchange and collaboration and-or be deployed as a response to emergencies that temporarily restrict physical mobility”.

Typically, VSM falls into one of three categories: academic, experiential or cultural. However, the current situation for students like Tinashe led us to add a fourth category, that of emergency VSM. This describes the temporary switch of academic activities from in-person mode due to physical travel or health restrictions.

It may affect international students who have had to return to their home country or could not leave to start a new programme and local students who are currently outside their home country.

Can virtual student mobility bridge the digital divide?

Also currently at home in Zimbabwe is Tatenda*, another student experiencing emergency VSM. He was due to be in Australia this year, but is currently studying entirely online. Tatenda has been well supported by his university and he told us that “certain individual lecturers have even gone as far as providing me personally with materials that would be available on-campus but can’t be found online”.

Nevertheless, Tatenda too has not had an entirely smooth ride. Unpredictable power cuts in particular have limited his ability to fully participate in a course that was always designed to be delivered on an Australian campus, not to his home in Harare.

The increasing use of VSM, whether as part of regular university programming or in emergency mode, points to its potential to open up the benefits of student mobility much more than had been the case prior to the pandemic. On the other hand, it also raises new challenges to access, in particular as this relates to the digital divide.

The quality of VSM programming also needs to be prioritised through institutional adaptations to quality assurance procedures, and global and regional conventions on mutual recognition of qualifications may need to be strengthened to better account for VSM. Access and quality are two key parts of UNESCO-IESALC’s ongoing work on VSM.

For now, students like Tinashe and Tatenda are looking forward to a time when they aren’t in emergency VSM mode and can spend at least some of their international experience actually being abroad. Our study has found that not only students, but educators and policy-makers are keen to see a return to physical mobility as and when it is safe to do so.

The potential of VSM, however, should not be overlooked. Either as a stand-alone option or blended with some physical mobility, we believe that VSM will play an increasingly important role in the future, helping students to be both mobile and connected.

*Tinashe and Tatenda are not their real names, which the students asked us not to publish.

Emma Sabzalieva, Bosen Lily Liu and Takudzwa Mutize work for UNESCO’s International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean in the research and analysis team.