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Every Learner Everywhere

10 Lessons From the Pandemic On Tech-Forward Teaching For Equity in Higher Ed

The COVID-19 pandemic that began impacting college instructors and students in March 2020 was an unanticipated stress test that revealed higher education’s hidden weak points. Among other things, it exposed where resilience in procedures, policies, and course design were lacking, where students were economically vulnerable, and where racial inequities were papered over. 

Arguably, the pandemic also revealed opportunities to redesign classroom practices and institutional policies to prioritize equity through tech-forward teaching. That’s one hopeful case explored in a new publication from Every Learner Everywhere, Lessons Learned: A Toolkit for Post-Pandemic Higher Education with Equity and Student Care at the Center. It asks where unexpected benefits showed themselves among the forced necessity of emergency remote teaching, and it optimistically asks where higher education can use the experience of the last three semesters to become more equitable and caring for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students.

Lessons Learned is made up of over 30 recommendations, briefly stated but drawn from and referring to dozens of in-depth resources developed by partners in the Every Learner network.

The recommendations are presented in four major sections:

  1. Remembering the Fundamentals
  2. Course Design and Classroom Practices
  3. Tech-forward Teaching for Equity
  4. Cross-unit Collaboration for Student Success

Below is a summary of highlights from the third section on tech-forward teaching. For examples and practical resources on each recommendation, download the complete Lessons Learned toolkit.

Seriously consider adaptive learning

This technology holds a lot of promise, though it’s not a magic bullet. In fact, used uncritically, adaptive learning can reinforce equity gaps. But evidence is accumulating that points the way to implementations of adaptive learning technology that personalizes learning for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poverty-affected students.

Keep online harassment out of online learning

Women and racially and ethnically minoritized students are disproportionately the targets of online harassment. Most online harassment they experience in college happens through their personal social media profiles, but not exclusively there. In fact, among college and university students who say they have been harassed, 12 percent say it happens through platforms and tools provided or sponsored by their institution, according to the EDUCAUSE 2020 technology survey. Educators need to design digital learning practices that don’t enable harassment.

Design for privacy

Remote learning during the pandemic revealed that many students are working with little privacy or anonymity. For some students, a classroom discussion about personal identity will be less comfortable if they are in a dorm room or at home with family where they can be overheard. For other students, the opposite may be true with the classroom being the less comfortable space. Whether teaching remotely, face to face, or hybrid, consider co-created community standards, a privacy statement on the syllabus, and backchannels to discuss concerns that students want to raise privately.

Design for the digital divide

The sudden shift to remote learning at the start of the pandemic made more visible the differences in access to computer equipment, software, and internet service that students had always experienced. Faculty can’t assume that every student will be able to engage with a lesson or assignment on the same up-to-date devices with steady internet service. Flexibility about due dates and synchronous participation are just a sample of instructional design practices that are more inclusive of students with varying digital access.

Give the digital divide a closer look

Students differ not only in the technology they have access to but in the “empowering” uses of that technology that they have been exposed to, as Barbara Means, Executive Director of Learning Sciences Research at Digital Promise, explains in The Equity Imperative and Social Justice: Bridging the Digital Divide in Times of Uncertainty. Higher education faculty and administrators can confront equity gaps with supports that help every student prepare to make full use of the learning technology available to them.

Choose well-designed tech products and create consistent experiences

A student survey from GlobalMindED shows that students are looking for more effective user experience design in their digital learning tools. It found a need for institutions to choose and implement platforms and software that provide learners with the most consistent and straightforward experience possible. 

Use instructional designers

Instructors shifting to unfamiliar distance learning modes for the first time during the pandemic may also have consulted with instructional design colleagues for the first time. Those collaborations can continue to benefit faculty and students going forward. Lean on instructional design professionals for insights and resources that help align pedagogy, practices, and technologies around learning objectives.

Point faculty toward good digital learning tools

During the emergency shift to distance learning in the spring of 2020, faculty often turned to information and guidance from vendors and from peers but less often from institutionally vetted resources. Faculty are overwhelmed with choices and need resource guides. Part 1 of Time for Class — COVID-19 Edition surveys advised administrators that “institutions need to tailor these guides to direct faculty to institutionally adopted and supported tools to reduce cognitive load and variability of experience for faculty and students.”

Keep building the infrastructure for the transformation to tech-forward teaching

The Time for Class surveys also demonstrated the need for effective leadership, technology, and support services to build high-quality digital learning. Part 2 says:

“Institutions that move beyond band-aids to scaled approaches to delivering high-quality online learning via professional development, infrastructure, and assessment will be best positioned for a more digital future . . . . There are core elements of the infrastructure — IT, instructional design, professional development — that need to be in place across departments and silos. Consider the capacity you need to build, the partnerships you can create, in order to achieve the desired student experience and outcome.”

Expect the unexpected 

The biggest lesson from the pandemic for many institutions may have been the importance of continuity planning. What do we do if . . . ? 

The hard part about that, of course, is the impossibility of anticipating every crisis that could disrupt an institution’s ability to provide access to high-quality learning experiences. Whatever the crisis, experience shows us that negative impacts tend to fall disproportionately on minoritized and poverty-affected students. Ensuring an institution’s ability to sustain an equity-centered mission includes enabling faculty to teach in multiple modalities.

Download  Lessons Learned: A Toolkit for Post-Pandemic Higher Education with Equity and Student Care at the Center

Equitizing Your Syllabus: 6 Tips from Faculty

Colleges and universities working to reduce barriers to equity for minoritized and poverty-affected students must consider not only the curriculum and classroom practices but also how the syllabus can create