Your LMS’s Role in Bridging Education’s Digital Divide

Equitable access to education is complicated by the existence of a digital divide that yawns ever wider. The solution to bridging this divide may seem too big for any one institution to solve—and in truth it is. However, smart technology decisions, including your choice of learning management system (LMS) can help you better serve every student. In this article, we look over your LMS options and examine the realities of the divide.

That access to education should be equitable and universal is hopefully not a controversial concept. Efforts to realize universal access have nominally been a major focus of nations for much of the 20th and 21st centuries. This is also true of the world at large via agencies such as UNESCO, and aid organizations such UNICEF. However, as education itself has continued to change, so have the parameters of truly equitable access to education.

Mirroring global trends in digital utilization, digital education has become the norm for many. At times this shift has been gradual—in 2020 it was sudden, unavoidable, and illustrative of the greater flexibility available to richer, better-resourced institutions.

A rise in digital education has made an accompanying digital divide inevitable, and governments and agencies have turned their attention to creating strategies to address it.

The Divide Defined: Availability, Affordability & Adoption

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology provides one helpful model for describing the digital divide. Its report highlights that digital access to education isn’t just about providing “access of any kind”. It recognizes that equitable access requires comparable connection speeds (i.e. broadband connections) as well as access to a range of device types, noting that: “Students without broadband access or only a cell phone have lower rates of homework completion, lower grade point averages […] even lower college completion rates.”

It then goes on to describe three major barriers: availability, affordability, and adoption.

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Availability barriers include:

  • Lack of reliable, high-speed broadband connections: connection speed and reliability are essential for more intensive or sustained digital learning experiences. A connection may also become unreliable or slow when in use by multiple people.
  • Limited ownership of personal devices capable of running learning programs: individuals may have to rely solely on an institution’s own equipment, or may share ownership with other members of the family. In both scenarios, they may have less hands-on time with the technology than their peers.
  • Lack of continuous internet and device availability due to high mobility: migratory individuals, those interacting with the justice or foster care systems, or those experiencing housing instability or homelessness are likely to encounter breaks in connection and device availability.
  • Limitations as a consequence of building-level infrastructure: families that rent may require permission to install wired connectivity options. Building management may also be locked into certain rules and contracts, and buildings may be made with materials that prevent the installation and operation of certain connection types.
  • Absence of large-scale infrastructure due to digital redlining: because of the limited potential for scale and profit, providers often neglect regions or locations, resulting in outdated or no connectivity. This lack of investment often coincides with already marginalized communities and perpetuates inequities.


Availability of access unfortunately doesn’t guarantee affordability of access. And if available access is unaffordable to an individual, it may as well not be available to them at all. Affordability covers both the high cost of broadband and technology tools for learning, and the lack of sustained funding for affordable internet programs.

Governments and other agencies have to step in to ensure affordability—but even when subsidized, connections and devices can be out of reach for some families and caregivers who are navigating basic needs (e.g. food, gas, shelter, electricity). Furthermore, expensive solutions may not always be high-quality ones, particularly if there is little competition in the market.


Even when digital education is available and affordable for all, there are still a wide range factors that may slow its adoption, including:

  • Lack of communication between agencies, private companies, and communities: solutions are often developed in silos and while well-intentioned, may miss important requirements (e.g. focusing on technical rather than human aspects). The end-users most impacted by the divide are also often excluded from decision-making processes.
  • Distrust between parties: communities may lack trust that governments or private companies have their best interests at heart. They may be reluctant to hand over data due to privacy, surveillance, and monitoring concerns.
  • Limited institutional or organizational capacity: time, money, and support are needed to execute the additional responsibilities of closing the digital divide. These are not always available.
  • Lack of resources and support in learners’ home languages: lack of translation may pose a barrier to families and caregivers understanding costs and services, and once services are accessed, learners may not understand how to use aspects of technology that haven’t been explained in a language they speak fluently.
  • Limited access to digital literacy skills training: learners may not be fully confident with all the digital environments they have to navigate, and need to be taught how to get the most out of the knowledge they consume. Teaching quality may also be undermined if educators haven’t received adequate training in the systems they use, as well as more generally. Furthermore, families and caregivers can enhance learner outcomes if they also have access to digital literacy skills training.
  • Lack of access to technical support: If users don’t have access to a range of in-person, over-the-phone, online, or supplemental support services and materials they may not be able to easily navigate tools and learning environments, or troubleshoot technical difficulties.

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Can Your Technology Choices Bridge the Divide?

Bearing in mind the significant, society-wide issues that define the digital divide, it can seem like individual institutions are largely at the mercy of government policy, aid agency intervention, and third-party business interests. And in truth, true equity remains contingent on ensuring a high level of reliable, affordable high-speed broadband provision and support. Institutions can advocate for and input on such provision, but it’s rare for them to be solely responsible for actively delivering it.

Nonetheless, institutions aren’t helpless when it comes to counteracting the worst effects of digital inequity. In addition to working with internet service providers and governments to increase equitable infrastructure and lower costs, creative workarounds to these challenges have included institutions providing take-home hotspots, or the use of mobile and satellite connection technologies (though these may not always provide reliable, high-speed connections).

4 LMS Features to Help You Bridge the Digital Divide

Then there’s the software through which you deliver your learning, including, of course, your learning management system (LMS). Here are the ways in which this technology can work around digital divide issues:

1) Choosing Open Source for Price and Support Reasons

Open-source software, including open-source learning management systems specifically, has an obvious price advantage versus a commercial license. While the total cost of ownership is a little more complex than entirely “free”—the LMS will have to be hosted and supported somehow—it’s still likely to work out as the more affordable proposition.

Open-source software is also generally easier to find support for, and to build upon. Moodle™-based platforms like Open LMS are already based on common software technologies (e.g. PhP, MySQL), and the culture of free access to source code that comes with an open-source solution ensures a large and innovative community creating extensions and new features.

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2) Providing Access on Whatever Devices Are Available to Your Learners

While true equitable access means serving learning on a full range of devices, there’s still considerable value in ensuring that your courses are available to smartphone users. After all, global smartphone penetration in 2022 was estimated to be 68% worldwide, and if learners are more likely to have a smartphone than a home computer, targeting them with your learning platform makes a lot of sense.

A modern LMS shouldn’t make you choose between offering your learning content on one device or another. It should cater to a range of devices and as far as possible offer an optimal experience on them all. For example, your LMS should offer a mobile app (like the Open LMS mobile app) that makes browsing available content a comfortable experience.

3) Working Around Unreliable Internet With the Right Feature Set

If your LMS becomes unusable whenever a connection is down, it’s not going to be useful for many of your learners wrestling with the realities of the digital divide. Ideally, your LMS should provide the ability to download content for offline access purposes—as is possible with the Open LMS mobile app. The app also allows instructors to grade assignments offline, and handles course notifications and messages whether or not the recipient is online.

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4) Using Your LMS to Teach Digital Literacy and Support Your Solutions

The learning you create and stage in your LMS can benefit a wider community of learners than just your students, and can help you deliver on your equitable access goals. For example, you can build courses that help various groups understand not only how to use the LMS and its features, but learn critical digital literacy skills more generally. It can also be used to deliver specific technical support related to software, systems, devices, or connections.

While most LMSs can deliver this training, properly administrating this kind of content may require a more advanced feature set. In this scenario, your project would benefit from:

  • Multi-tenancy: By offering training beyond your students, you will need some way of keeping the data and learning material for different groups you interact with separate from each other. A multi-tenant LMS will allow you to manage student, teacher, and parent/caregiver accounts and curriculums separately.
  • Multi-language support: As the discussion of adoption barriers touches on above, the availability of support in the home languages of students, teachers, and families/caregivers is critical. The more technical the support topic, the more difficult it will be for someone to achieve a favorable outcome in a language they aren’t comfortable with. Robust multi-language support in the LMS will make launching and managing different language versions easier

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In Conclusion: Technology’s Benefits and the Dangers of an Evolving Divide

Through this article, we’ve hopefully illuminated both the nature of the digital divide and the technology you need on-side to begin addressing it.

It’s also important to realize that the challenge isn’t a static one: addressing today’s inequities won’t prevent new ones from emerging, and institutions must expect to revisit the divide in the years to come. For example, it’s already been suggested that one future divide may involve AI, “where the rich have access to technology, increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, and to teachers to help them use this technology as part of their learning, while poor kids just have access to the technology”.

In this way, AI poses multiple threats even as it offers solutions. Better-resourced institutions are more likely to have access to AI and people who can help them get the most out of it. Institutions with less funding may actually have to fall back on AI to fill gaps in instruction. Even now, while the long-term role of AI is uncertain, better-resourced institutions are more likely to have the luxury of experimenting and innovating with AI. Other institutions will have to wait for the consensus to be formed and passed along.

Whatever the future holds, we believe the right technology can help institutions remain agile and pivot to find the solutions required. Bridging the digital divide may require a coordinated effort across national boundaries, but that’s perhaps easiest when the technology itself is built by an international community of contributors with knowledge of a wide range of local needs.

Open LMS has helped institutions all over the world host, measure, and improve their learning programs To find out more about our learning management system, Open LMS EDU, please request a demo.
Brad Koch
About the author

Brad Koch

VP of Industry Management and Partnerships

Brad boasts over 30 years in educational support. Starting as an Associate Publisher at Pearson, he crafted books and software in support of technical certifications. His journey continued into online learning with product leadership roles at ANGEL Learning, Blackboard, and Instructure Canvas. Currently spearheading Industry Management and Partner initiatives at Open LMS, Brad is a seasoned observer of online learning's swift evolution. Grateful for his front-row involvement, he collaborates with institutions dedicated to refining the online teaching and learning experience.

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