Technological Inaccessibility to Students: It Goes Beyond A Global Pandemic
By: Daniela A. Cortez Bravo
Education is intended to be a public good, but the American education system does not live up to the expectations.
Despite attending UCLA - the number one public university in the country - I can speak to a disadvantaged student's plight from my lifelong experience. As a first-generation, low-income, and Mexican-American woman, I fit into the systematically designed mold of a student barred from a university like UCLA. I value the various opportunities given to me by my education, but I am aware of how discrimination coexists with the American education system.
Throughout my education, my home life has been a whirlwind of instability. Since I can recall, necessities like functioning plumbing, running water, and electricity were household luxuries. These conditions inform my passion for advocating for accessible education. The very circumstances from which I sought salvation actively challenged my academic pursuits. Simply put, affording at-home stable WiFi was impossible until the 11th grade. Even now - as I fulfill distance learning and a virtual job - infrastructural barriers make WiFi connectivity unreliable in my community, threatening many individual’s education and livelihood.
Consequently, it is frustrating that it took until a global pandemic for the issue of inaccessible technology and education to make headlines. The pandemic's circumstances left roughly 50 million students reliant on public school resources in utter deprivation, and the California State Board of Education recorded at least 300,000 students who lack obtainable technology in distance learning. Federally, that number is much higher, and it ranges between 18 to 162 million Americans unable to attend courses or complete assignments. I am merely one of the many students whose academic trajectory accounts for excessive socioeconomic challenges.
The availability of public educational resources does not make them attainable. When handy technology is positively correlated to academic success, guaranteeing access outside of the classroom is paramount. In my hometown of San Jose, California, WiFi carriers offer East Side Union High School District students free services. Granting free WiFi services is not new since Xfinity has made previously similar offers to these same communities. Yet, infrastructural barriers obstruct my community’s access and activate my double consciousness of the expected gratitude for available resources even if they're inaccessible to us from our socially inferior state. The Federal Communications Commission names infrastructurally limited internet services a problem and advocates for expanding broadband services in rural areas, tribal areas, and MTEs (condos, office spaces, etc.) This is merely an example of one policy that in relation to connectivity, overlooks the necessary plumbing of an optimal policy. As a result, constituents like myself, who live in compromised areas, are disregarded. Policies to combat inaccessibility need to go beyond availability. Specific implementations are necessary to produce a result that does not disadvantage some and benefit others.
Our failure to internalize the persistent lack of resources is conducive to the reigning inequality within our education system. In the Pre-COVID era students still had, at the very least, incredibly insufficient options to fight for technical access, whether that be at school or going to the nearest public library, to name a few examples. Those options are merely distant memories for dependent students who never had long-term access, since most schools and public libraries have been closed since March of 2020. Despite public WiFi connections, many non-residential students, like me, return home to recurring power outages and WiFi interruptions amid class or work. We must look at the standing facts. Millions of Americans who do not have WiFi likely never did going into the pandemic.
If UCLA is an institution of public education - a public good - then why is education not equally accessible to all Bruins? As a response to inaccessibility, temporary solutions were enacted. In the wake of Covid-19, UCLA offered tech grants and renting services to Bruins. The awards are suspended after the Fall quarter, and lending services of technology are limited by renting periods and availability of exhaustive supplies at the UCLA Library. It is understandable why UCLA limits tech grants and potentially underestimates technological costs in their Financial Aid calculator. The more UCLA calculates, the more they are responsible for in unmet financial needs. Rationally, it is not in UCLA's best financial interest to internalize the spillover effect of their contribution to technological inaccessibility. Regardless, in avoiding higher institutional costs, these discrepancies perpetuate harmful consequences upon students who cannot front monthly WiFi payments or expensive technological investments. As a public good, our public system of education has a commitment to attainability.
The American education system's reality is this: we rejoice in having some of the most renowned higher education institutions worldwide but cannot afford everyone the means to advance their education. We insert capitalist and neoliberal ideals that punish historically minoritized individuals for falling prey to the systemic injustice they endure. We uphold status quos where bribes and corruption can run rampant but permit students across the country to access WiFi from parking lots or dusty sidewalks.
Technological inaccessibility and inequity are not symptomatic of COVID-19. COVID-19 only exacerbated existent disadvantages. After a year in a global pandemic, UCLA is beginning to regard technological accessibility as a “basic need” for student success, and administrators are optimistic about its maximization. Adequate programs need Bruins to urge and hold institutional representatives accountable to ensure attainable and equal education for all. Without a proper response, unjust education will not be cured alongside COVID-19. We need a permanent solution and not a transient response now.