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Woman, working from home with a notebook and laptop for online research.

Students at Morton College who are pursuing a degree can be eligible for a free MacBook or iPad to use for inside and outside the classroom.

Jacob Wackerhousen/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Online education continues to grow as an opportunity to engage students, but some students continue to be left behind due to inequitable access to technology.

A 2023 survey found four in 10 college students had struggled to gain access to a device including a computer or laptop in the past year, and 80 percent had experienced unstable internet.

A new initiative at Morton College in Illinois seeks to bridge the digital divide between those who have and have not by providing free devices to learners.

Through the Panther Digital Initiative, launched in fall 2023, Morton College leaders distributed over 300 Apple devices (a MacBook or iPad) to help full-time, first-time degree seekers complete their schoolwork.

The initiative has supported the college’s retention goals and administrators hope it serves as a recruitment tool for future enrollment, Marisol Velázquez, associate provost and vice president of student services at Morton College shared in an April 12 webinar hosted by the Partnership for College Completion’s Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative.

The background: College leaders became more aware of the need to provide students with devices during remote learning due to COVID-19 pandemic. Many students had to share computers or other tech with their families or didn’t have access to a device at all.

In addition, the college wanted to prioritize use of open educational resources (OERs) to help reduce costs of textbooks among students, but if students didn’t have a digital device, they couldn’t access the resources.

The college chose to partner with Apple because students indicated they preferred Apple devices and the partnership fit the needs of different programs.  

A pilot program first supported nursing students at Morton, then expanded to all first-time, full-time degree seeking students.

How it works: Morton College officials purchased a mix of 500 MacBooks and iPads using HEERF (Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund) grant funds to distribute to learners, faculty and staff.

Each student is assigned a device depending on their enrollment status and program of study. Students can pick up their devices after registering and attending new student orientation and use them for the duration of their enrollment at the college. Upon graduation, students must return their device or purchase it from the college.

Most students receive a MacBook but nursing and automotive students utilize iPads, which are more portable and versatile for the program needs.

Learners have the freedom to use their laptop or iPad as they need it, downloading applications for personal use or however else they might need to employ a device, Velázquez said. Devices come pre-loaded with Microsoft Office Products, Morton College’s portal, Google Chrome, Blackboard—the college’s learning management software—and Pearson’s digital publishing application.

The college provides technical support through the IT department and can help students replace or repair devices, if needed. Faculty and staff also received training and support on how to incorporate technology, including OERs, into their courses to partner alongside students.

Similar Solutions

The University of Missouri at Kansas City launched a free tablet program for learners in 2023, providing students who had demonstrated need with a device and internet hotspot to increase online access.

The impact: During fall 2023, 336 students participated in Panther Digital Initiative. The college is collecting data on student enrollment, retention and graduation rates, as well as student learning experiences, to gauge the effectiveness of the initiative.

Among learners who received devices, 63 percent of them retained to spring 2024, about the same as all first-time, first-year students (64 percent) and 6 percentage points higher than the total student population.

A student survey found 84 percent of students who participated in PDI utilized their laptop for coursework and, if they didn’t have the device, 42 percent said they would have used their smartphones instead.

College leaders also saw greater use of OERs across campus. In spring 2023,  21 course sections utilized OERs, and that number grew to 83 sections in fall 2023 and 80 sections in spring 2024.

The challenges: While the program met its goals in assisting in retention of students and supporting OER use, there are still opportunities to expand digital access.

Among Morton’s 5,400 learners, the majority are dual enrollment students or enrolled part-time, meaning they’re not eligible to participate in the program, despite individuals in need.

In the future, Morton College leaders are looking at how to better identify students to close equity gaps and new funding sources to keep the program sustainable.

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