Free-falling into the Digital Divide: Reading on smartphones in writing centres

Vol. 2., No. 6 (Winter 2021)
Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR

How does fundamental change happen? Sometimes slowly, and then all at once.

Students started saying that they didn’t need to hand in a printed copy of their papers; the instructor asked them to submit them electronically only. They weren’t getting hardcopies of their assignments from their instructors either; they were showing us their assignment instructions on their phones. I remember the all-staff training session where I said that we would allow students to use their devices to show us their assignments. There were protests and conversation, but we agreed that it was the right thing to do for our students. It was a fundamental change, and we all felt it. I developed guidance for the tutors and students. The students were happy with the change, and the tutors who protested adapted were happy the students were happy

Of course, now this is quaint nostalgia. None of us has seen student work on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper since March 2020, and many of us won’t see one again until maybe September, if ever.

Digital shove

It’s not often significant institutional, pedagogical, and operational change can be marked and recorded on the calendar together, let alone on the clock. For our centre, it was March 14, 2020 at 12:16 am. I’ve saved the e-mail I wrote announcing the suspension to face-to-face student tutoring and the move to digital tutoring: “I’m working on a solution for online tutoring for both tutors and students.” But this change has been coming since the digital turn of the 1980s. As my colleague, Stephanie Bell, and I write, Canadian writing centres have been slow to begin to recognize this turn (2020), my centre included. The pandemic gave us all a terrific digital shove, and in free-fall we were forced to reckon with digital tools. It turned out that our laptops and phones—despite being so controversial within educational spaces—are the parachutes.

The pandemic gave us all a terrific digital shove, and in free-fall we were forced to reckon with digital tools. It turned out that our laptops and phones—despite being so controversial within educational spaces—are the parachutes.

Let’s consider the most ubiquitous connected devices. In 2011, 35% of American adults owned a smartphone, compared to 81% in 2019 (Statista, 2021). But, Americans aged 18-29 in 2016 owned smartphone at a rate of 96%. Of smartphone owning students in 2017, 84% used their phones for “learning support” (Newman & Beetham, 2017). These pre-pandemic numbers were surprising when they came out. I was surprised at the use of phones by students for reading, and then writing their papers (Reed, 2018). As Pigg in Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces (2014) points out, the embodied student is tethered to the classroom by their connected devices always and everywhere. The classroom is the breakroom, the floor of the kids’ bedroom, and in the car waiting for the train to pass. Now in the pandemic, this has become obvious to everyone, everywhere.

For students without access or with limited access to connected devices and wifi, the digital divide is often insurmountable. But this divide is deep and nuanced. Gonzales, Calarco, and Lynch’s (2018) Technology Problems and Student Achievement Gaps: A Validation and Extension of the Technology Maintenance Construct, shows that a lack of access to devices for reading and writing in HE is a social justice issue based largely on race and economic disparity (p. 2). It’s not just owning or access to a device for school that is an issue;  there is also a link between “technology maintenance and students’ academic performance,” and the “negative effects of short-term disruptions [of access to technology] on healthcare, employment, and interpersonal social support” (Gonzales, Calarco, & Lynch, 2018, pp. 3-4) for students of students of colour and of lower socio-economic status.

And then there is this twist.

This is further complicated when considering Kazanci’s (2015) longitudinal study of 790+ students from 2008 to 2014. Kazanci found that a majority of students (77.9%) prefer paper-based reading versus 22.1% digital screens. This didn’t change much between 2008 (78.5%) and 2014 (77.3%). Even with technological advances and greater electronic options, most of the undergraduates in this study acknowledge that print works best for learning and still prefer reading their academic texts in print format when they want to achieve a deep learning outcome (Tsai, 2016): “students at a high reading proficiency level preferred to use the printed text over the electronic text, partly because they could not use reading strategies effectively and could not concentrate on the screen” (p. 149). Mizrachi (2015) found that when students are assigned fewer than five pages of reading, 40% said that they preferred electronic formats and 38% paper. But, when given readings over five pages in length, 70% wanted paper copies.

For Mannheimer (2016), this becomes significant for many students who cannot afford to print:

An inadvertent outcome of higher education’s efforts to negate the effects of the ‘digital divide’ may be the creation of a ‘print divide’ which, because print is still the most effective learning format, favors [sic] students who can afford it. (p. 310)

This is especially evident when we consider Mannheimer’s Figure 2 (above). It’s not just about reading, or even the quality of reading, but the ability to retain, process, and remember—which, critically, is often how we assess students.

Since March 2020, all of the student papers we’ve tutored have been on a screen. The controversies of these devices have been set aside. We’ve gone from “Should students use devices in the classroom?” to “How do we use devices in the classroom?” to “I’m teaching from these devices” in short order. Reading has always been a political act, and it’s related directly to our students’ intellectual and economic futures. Being open to (and providing the tools to offer) all platforms and devices for reading is to take a stand for student social justice and well-being helping the student where they are, at any stage of the writing and reading process.

Photo by Christian Santizo on Unsplash

Bell, S., & Hotson, B. (2020). Tooling up the multi: Paying attention to digital writing projects at the writing centre. Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, 30. Retrieved from

Kazanci, Z. (2015). University Students’ Preferences of Reading from a Printed Paper or a Digital Screen ― A Longitudinal Study. International Journal of Culture and History (EJournal), 1(1), 50–53.

Mannheimer, S. (2016). Some Semi-deep Thoughts About Deep Reading: Rejoinder to “Digital Technology and Student Cognitive Development: The Neuroscience of the University Classroom.” Journal of Management Education, 40(4), 405–410.

Newman, T., & Beetham, H. (2017). Student digital experience tracker 2017: The voice of 22000 UK learners. Retrieved from

Pigg, S. (2014). Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits : A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces. College Composition and Communication, 66(2), 250–275.

Reed, M. (3 December 2018). Writing Papers on Phones: Is a smartphone a necessity for college students today? Retrieved January 14, 2020, from Inside Higher Ed website:

Tsai, C.-C. (2016). A Case Study of English-Major Students’ Preferences for English Reading from a Printed Text versus Electronic Text. The New Educational Research, 46(4), 142–151.