The digital divide: Students’ lived experiences of limited digital access


This blog discusses my first research project since graduating from my MA Education in 2021. It aimed to capture the lived experiences of students from widening participation (WP) backgrounds who received digital learning and support grants (DLSG) from their institution to help with their limited digital access during the Covid-19 pandemic (Gilbert and Parkes, 2023).


Following the COVID-19 national lockdown restrictions that forced higher education online in early 2020, the prevalence of the digital gap emerged, especially amongst many students from WP backgrounds (Cullinan et al, 2021). For example, an Office for Students (2020) poll of 1,416 students, suggested 18% of students were impacted by a lack of access to digital technology and 52% affected by slow and unreliable internet connection. To support their students’ digital access during the pandemic, Birmingham Newman University, a widening participation institute with some of the most disadvantaged students in the sector (commuter students, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students, low participation neighbourhoods (LPN) and Indices of Multiple Deprivation 1-5 (Newman, 2020), introduced a DLSG. This grant, predominantly awarded to students from BAME backgrounds, incited my interest in understanding the impact of the grant on these students’ well-being, their ability to maintain study, and the sense of them ‘mattering’ to the university.

On considering what research method to apply, I anticipated each student who received the grant would have their own unique experience, their own story to tell. Therefore, I decided a Narrative Inquiry (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000) study would be most appropriate to collate the lived experiences of these students, to reveal their ‘small stories’ (Barkhuizen, 2014). The participants’ narratives were restructured in a process that Clandinin and Connolly (2000) call ‘re-storying’. As such, the participants’ experiences were presented chronologically, rather than transcribed verbatim. Although the research did not aim to identify generalisations, presenting the narratives in a re-storied format helped create a flow to the narrative inquiry in line with the ‘relational, temporal, and situational’ (Dewey, 1938) aspects, illuminating similarities in the participants’ stories. For example, each re-storied narrative started with the details of the participant’s digital access need, how they felt about receiving the invite for the DLSG and how they used it. It offered a porthole to view students’ lives and learn their ‘small stories’ of other issues and challenges they faced during the pandemic and continue to face; some of these challenges being as prevalent to student well-being and success as their digital access.

This study highlighted how for many students from WP backgrounds, such as those at Birmingham Newman, attending university is a constant juggle of family, caring, and work responsibilities often with additional learning needs such as Dyslexia. In addition, it demonstrated how students’ digital access changed during their studies, either through devices becoming not fit for purpose or the students’ learning needs changing. This study hopefully helps to illuminate how other HE institutions, of comparable size and student cohorts, can understand the challenges students may face with limited digital access and provide insight in to how they can support the situations of such students.


Barkhuizen, G. (2014). Narrative research in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching, 47(4), 450-466.

Clandinin, D.J. and Connelly, F.M. (2000) Narrative Inquiry: experience and story in qualitative research. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cullinan, J., Flannery, D., Harold, J., Lyons, S. and Palcic, D. (2021) ‘The disconnected: COVID‑19 and disparities in access to quality broadband for higher education students’. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18:26, pp.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan Company. (accessed 19 December 2022).

Gilbert, G. and Parkes, S. (2023) The digital divide: Students’ lived experiences of limited digital access. In: Raven, N (ed) One Voice: Fusing Diverse Perspectives for Collective Action. Peterborough FACE: Forum for Access and Continuing Education, 79-100.

Newman University Access and participation plan (2020)

Office for Students. (2020). ‘Digital poverty’ risks leaving students behind [Press release] 3 September. Available at: (Accessed 1 April 2022.)

Blog By: Gill Gilbert, Birmingham Newman University (

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