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August 5, 2021

Multi-Institution Survey of Nearly 700 College Students Points to New Digital Divide in Online Learning

College Innovation Network’s student survey highlights importance of ‘EdTech self-efficacy’ for positive online learning experiences and also identifies equity gaps

SALT LAKE CITY- The College Innovation Network (CIN), an initiative spearheaded by WGU Labs, today published the results of a multi-institution survey aimed at understanding students’ learning experiences with education technology (EdTech) during the 2020-2021 academic year.  

The New Digital Divide: How EdTech Self-Efficacy is Shaping the Online Student Learning Experience in Higher Ed shares survey results from 684 students across four CIN member institutions—California University of Pennsylvania, Loyola University New Orleans, Piedmont Community College, and Rio Salado College—all of which serve diverse student populations. 

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Results indicate that students’ confidence in their ability to learn and adapt to EdTech in the virtual classroom—or “EdTech self-efficacy,” as coined by CIN in the report—was an important predictor of how positive students’ online learning experiences were over the past year. 

The survey consisted of 24 questions about students’ experiences with EdTech and online learning over the 2020–21 academic year, and participants were from diverse backgrounds, attend diverse school types, and are at various stages of their higher education journey. Among the findings: 

  • Twenty percent (20%) of respondents “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that they have struggled to learn how to use educational technologies in online courses. 
  • A third (33%) of respondents “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that having to learn how to use new educational technologies throughout the year has been hard. 
  • More than a third (34%) of respondents report that most of the education technologies they used over the school year were new to them. 

“There is an implicit assumption in the EdTech industry that students today are ‘digital natives’ and will quickly and easily learn to use new tech in the classroom,” said CIN research lead, Dr. Nicole Barbaro. “While this may be true for most, our survey shows that this assumption may be leaving upwards of 20 percent of college students behind, and students of color are impacted at a higher rate than their white counterparts.”  

The survey report also highlights the types of EdTech students reported using most often in their online courses. Foundational EdTech hardware (i.e., laptops and tablets) and software (i.e., Microsoft Office, video conferencing, Google Suite) are driving the online learning transition in higher education, and findings from the survey show that inequitable access to foundational EdTech can create tech dependencies for new products and exacerbate inequity. 

“The findings from our research demonstrate that the digital divide is more complex than only inequity of access to EdTech,” said CIN Director, Dr. Omid Fotuhi. “Rather, it is also a product of the inequities that impact whether, and how, students actually use those essential EdTech resources. This is important to understand so we can ensure all students are getting the most out of their online learning experiences.” 

Some of the survey questions were designed to measure differences in how students at online institutions and traditional brick-and-mortar institutions experienced online learning in the pandemic. The results indicate a significant statistical difference between the groups, with students from online programs reporting better experiences (p < .001) with EdTech than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.   

“This study underscores the fact that students must learn both technology and content to experience effective online learning,” said Janelle Elias, Interim Vice President of Strategy, Advancement, and National Division at Rio Salado College. “Introducing any new technology into the learning experience requires appropriate resources and supports to mitigate negative impacts to teaching and learning content.” 

CIN was launched in 2020 by WGU Labs—Western Governors University’s research and development hub—with support from the Charles Koch Foundation and is designed to connect leaders from colleges and universities with educational technology (EdTech) innovators to advance students’ academic, career, and life outcomes. The 2021 CIN EdTech Student Survey is the inaugural report in an annual series of research studies CIN has planned to provide insight into how students are learning with EdTech. Learn more about CIN and the report at  

About the College Innovation Network  

The College Innovation Network, part of WGU Labs, is a program that supports a network of higher education institutions to more effectively identify, implement, and evaluate EdTech solutions. By leveraging the full set of research and design services from WGU Labs, CIN supports educational institutions throughout the full lifecycle of EdTech implementation and evaluation with the ultimate goal of improving the student experience. Our vision is to support the evolution of higher education towards a future in which EdTech is an effective vehicle for social mobility. To learn more about CIN, visit

About WGU Labs    

WGU Labs is a nonprofit that is an affiliate of Western Governors University (WGU). WGU Labs primarily provides research, offers services, invents, builds, and secondarily invests in strategically aligned innovative learning solutions that improve quality and advance educational outcomes for learners everywhere. Building on social psychology, learning science, and industry trends, WGU Labs accelerates education startups and develops its own research-supported, scalable products. Learn more about WGU Labs at

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