Digital inequality challenges educators to navigate a complex landscape of disparities, urging a kaleidoscopic exploration

Understanding digital inequality in education through a theoretical kaleidoscope

Digital inequality challenges educators to navigate a complex landscape of disparities, urging a kaleidoscopic exploration

Academics worldwide shifted to online teaching due to COVID-19 in March 2020. This sudden change exposed stark inequalities in digital education. The transition highlighted issues like unequal access to technology and support. As a response, a study titled “Understanding Digital Inequality: A Theoretical Kaleidoscope” was prompted. This research aims to explore and address these disparities comprehensively.

Our starting point is that digital inequality is a complex phenomenon and that different theoretical approaches may help to diagnose different aspects of what is wrong and why.

Sandra Abegglen

The Kaleidoscope: The digital and the losses for human flourishing

Digital inequality is complex, and various theoretical approaches can shed light on different aspects of the issue. Imagine a kaleidoscope where each turn reveals unique perspectives. Similarly, different theories and individuals contribute to our understanding of digital inequality, each adding to the overall picture.

A collective effort was essential for our exploration, as several contributors gathered to discuss various theoretical viewpoints. We aimed to challenge the widespread belief that technology invariably improves education. Our goal was to delve deeper into the uneven distribution of power, both socially and educationally, and its impact on people’s interactions with technology. It is important to problematise the relatively unchallenged notion that technology “enhances” teaching and learning and that technology will solve the challenges of addressing the needs of “the poor” in education, at scale.

Although it may seem theoretical, our approach offers practical and educational benefits. By identifying connections between different theories, we can address digital inequality more comprehensively and inclusively. However, this process is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope – sometimes uncertain and complex. Yet, by embracing this uncertainty, we can uncover overlooked tensions and address societal injustices.

Credit. Midjourney

The lenses we use to explore the inequalities

We are ourselves a kaleidoscope of authors who came together to manifest the power of a multi-lens approach when exploring digital inequality. The lenses harnessed by the individual authors in the original piece include:

  • The (human) capability approach which is mindful of people’s differences by questioning what it means to offer equal access via digital means. 
  • Affective injustice, whereby emotional lived experiences and responses can be a distinctive source of social inequality and injustice. 
  • Bourdieu’s theory of practice, where inequality is understood through the key concepts of field, habitus, and capital. 
  • The cultural-historical activity theory which focuses on the socio-cultural structures and interdependent relationships between the individual and the community that enable and/or constrain the uptake of digital technologies.
  • Jan van Dijk’s resources appropriation theory sees the problem of digital inequality as a result of how people use digital media in their daily lives. 
  • Critical pedagogy (Paulo Freire) is an approach which problematises the notion that technology automatically grants access and enhances learning for all students. 
  • Fraser’s tripartite model of justice offers a lens to look into digital inequality decentred from technology, focusing on issues of misrecognition and misrepresentation not only in the digital world but also outside of it. 
  • Critical realism and realist social theory bring attention to the interplay of structure, culture, and agency in inequality, particularly in social reproduction/change, i.e., morphogenesis/morphostasis. 

What is needed now and in the near future

Amidst growing digitalization, education requires varied critical viewpoints. It’s crucial to delve beyond surface technologies and consider their socio-cultural impacts. The rise of data technologies underscores the need to prioritise human experiences and needs in education, fostering equality and meeting academic demands.

At the national level, policies that impact digital inequality in education need to integrate principles and requirements to address inequities in the system. Across higher education sectors, infrastructure must be built to ensure a level playing field for all students.

Industry stakeholders cannot be allowed to leverage the needs of those with less access for their profit-making ends nor set conditions for their offerings (for example, user data in exchange for connectivity).

Bias in content offered by large companies (such as AI platforms) must be eradicated.


Sandra Abegglen, Tom Burns, Laura Czerniewicz, Su-ming Khoo, Caroline Kuhn, and Sandra Sinfield have contributed equally to the writing of this collaborative article.

Tom Burns is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Centre for Teaching Enhancement at London Metropolitan University, United Kingdom, developing creative teaching, learning and assessments that light student curiosity, and develop power and voice.  

Laura Czerniewicz is a Professor Emerita at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. 

Su-ming Khoo is Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at the University of Galway, Ireland and Visiting Professor in Critical Studies of Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha, South Africa.  

Caroline Kuhn is a senior lecturer in education and technology in the School of Education at Bath Spa University in England.  

Sandra Sinfield is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Centre for Teaching Enhancement at London Metropolitan University, United Kingdom, and a co-founder of the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education. Sandra celebrates creativity in university teaching and learning.


Journal reference

Kuhn, C., Khoo, S. M., Czerniewicz, L., Lilley, W., Bute, S., Crean, A., … & MacKenzie, A. (2023). Understanding digital inequality: a theoretical kaleidoscope. In Constructing Postdigital Research: Method and Emancipation (pp. 333-373). Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland.

Sandra Abegglen is a researcher in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) at the University of Calgary, Canada, with a strong interest in collaboration, co-creation, and social justice. She leads TALON, the Teaching and Learning Online Network, and the Playful Hybrid Higher Education project.