When the Tech Bubble Bursts: Technology and Privilege

by Caris White | 2/5/20 2:15am

by Lorraine Liu / The Dartmouth


The common application that most of us used to get into Dartmouth required a computer and an internet connection. Dartmouth’s website, emails from the College Board, SAT score reports — all of these things require us to be online. When 17 percent of teenagers say they sometimes or often can’t complete their homework because they lack access to digital technology at home, this is what they are missing out on. The digital divide is a growing issue in education, and Dartmouth isn’t immune to its effects.

For all of our complaining about Eduroam’s spotty connection and the one bar of LTE reception in Hanover, Dartmouth College looks a lot like a technological paradise. The tables in FFB are lined with Apple desktops and it seems like every student’s closest companion is a sleek silver laptop. As it turns out, having access to cutting-edge technology doesn’t just seem mandatory at Dartmouth — it is.

Among the many emails I received from Dartmouth before matriculating this fall, there was one from the Computer Store, telling me what kind of computer I needed. At the time, I thought that the memory and RAM requirements were over-the-top — but after a term and a half of classes, I’ve realized that having a fast laptop can make a huge academic difference.

While the computer store offers many laptop options, all of them come with a relatively hefty price tag; the least expensive is still $849. I spoke with Maureen Hennigan, the senior director of service strategy and design, and Theresa Woodward, the manager of the Dartmouth Computer Store, about how Dartmouth makes technology like this accessible to all students. I was surprised to learn that when buying a computer to meet Dartmouth’s requirements, it’s up to students on financial aid to communicate with the Office of Financial Aid themselves about getting their computer packages covered, according to Hennigan.

Dartmouth’s $5.7 billion endowment suggests that the problem is not whether it has the funds to make technological access affordable for all students, but rather, effective distribution of its resources. One of the hardest parts of making technology at Dartmouth both accessible and relevant is actually knowing what students need, according to Hennigan.

“Knowing your needs is part of our biggest struggle,” Hennigan said, “We don’t have our own direct access [to students’ financial need.]” 

Hennigan said her goal is to establish systems that reduce students’ stress and confusion surrounding technology.

“It’s enough work to get here; they shouldn’t have to have this anxiety,” Hennigan said. 

Her words ring true. Getting into Dartmouth is a serious challenge, but once students are here, varying levels of privilege, especially when it comes to technology, can become a hurdle in the classroom, beyond just the financial aspect.

For instance, computer science can be intimidating for students who arrive with limited technological backgrounds, especially in intro-level classes where prior experience is helpful.

“It’s hard to be in a space where you think, ‘Everybody in here knows more than I do’ — and that’s the privilege piece, because some people do,” said digital arts professor and cofounder of the Digital Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI)Lab Laurie Loeb.

Angela Li ’20, a computer science major who works at DALI lab, highlighted this sentiment.

“CS just didn’t seem like that intimidating of a field to me because I’d already had 4 years of exposure to it,” Li explained.

However, I walked away from my conversation with Loeb with the hopeful belief that this isn’t always the case. Loeb spoke to some of the ways she’s seen the dynamics between privilege and technology shift during her years at Dartmouth.

“It used to be that men would come in with more experience,” Loeb said. “That’s still the case, but it’s changing ... There’s a white privilege that goes on, and we certainly see a dearth of students coming from African American, Native American, Latino backgrounds who are coming into computer science and technology. Sometimes arts is a way to change that. Because art crosses boundaries; it’s not just straight CS. It’s a little bit more accessible to people.”

However, according to Loeb, the advantage of prior coding experience becomes less substantial the more classes you take. She also said that when it comes to the digital arts program, all the technology students need is provided by the school. There are computer labs in Sudikoff that Loeb said students are encouraged to use, because modelling software requires more processing power than most laptops offer.

Loeb also stressed the importance of breaking through the notions of privilege-based advantages that are common in technology-centric fields. She said that the idea that people who start college with previous coding experience are more likely to be successful in computer science classes and positions is not inherently true.

“There’s an initial perceived privilege bias. It’s one I really encourage people to push through,” Loeb said. “Programs and software are only as good as the people writing it.” 

There are spaces at Dartmouth that help level the playing field — DALI Lab is of these places. Li said that the equipment in DALI is worth tens of thousands of dollars, but it is all free for DALI employees to use. However, at an institution with as large of an endowment as Dartmouth, it can be easy to forget that not everyone in the world has access to spaces with high-quality technology.

“Because of DALI we get used to being in an environment where we have access to these things,” Li said. “It’s easy to get sucked into the bubble and forget what the real world is like.”

Twenty minutes away in Norwich, VT, for instance, there isn’t broadband fast enough to run the modelling software used in DALI lab, according to Loeb.

As students of Dartmouth, we all have a certain level of technological privilege. It isn’t always equal; some students come from rural areas without broadband, and many have to find ways to afford the technology Dartmouth requires.

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