Every Learner Everywhere

5 Transformative Practices That Center Student Voice and Equity in Digital Learning

High-quality digital learning has the potential to address and remove the barriers created by gateway courses, but that potential depends on transformative practices within our institutions that center student voice and equity.

Digital learning can enable colleges and universities to increase gateway course and degree completion, lower the cost of instruction, and deliver more equitable learning outcomes for Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students. But digital learning will not do that if it reproduces higher ed’s structural inequities. Instead we must use the design and delivery of digital learning as an opportunity to embrace transformative practices.

1. Shift from deficit thinking to strength-based approach

A deficit-based perspective holds students from marginalized populations responsible for the challenges and inequities they face. Deficit thinking views certain students as “at risk” of failing our institutions, rather than viewing institutions as “at risk” of failing students. A deficit mindset views education as remediating gaps, absences, or weaknesses that students bring from their home cultures or prior experiences.

A strengths-based perspective, by contrast, is one that recognizes the cultural resources, knowledge, value, and cultural capital that students bring into educational spaces with them and seeks to leverage those strengths. This is also sometimes called assets-based teaching, anti-deficit teaching, or a cultural wealth approach.

Learn more: Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Approaches and Strategies

2. Data-informed instruction

Imagine if you could assess your students and quickly provide them with relevant instruction at the right time based on their individual and collective needs. What would your course look like? What would your students be doing, and how would they demonstrate content mastery?

Technology can help faculty shift to data-informed instruction in the classroom whether online or in blended formats. Your institution is likely using many digital learning tools, including a learning management system and adaptive courseware, that use student responses to create reports that faculty can use to make instructional decisions.

However, faculty need thoughtful and sustained support to adapt evidence-based practices and customize strategies to meet student needs. Data-informed instruction comes most organically from a data culture.

Learn more: Building an Academic Data Culture to Support Student Success 

3. Work across silos

Work in digital learning is often siloed, making it difficult for departments, offices, and external associations and organizations to provide support for digital learning strategy. One effective way to start working across the silos is with a structured community of practice. An equity-centered community of practice will be guided by questions such as:

  • How has the community defined benefits for all participants?
  • How will the community address systemic inequities and barriers for minoritized populations in its process (facilitation and evaluation) and strive to eliminate these barriers in practice?
  • In what ways does the community center the voices of historically marginalized persons and foster inclusive group learning?
  • How is the labor of ensuring that diversity, equity, and inclusion measures are met and distributed throughout the community?

Learn more: Developing a Digital Learning Ecosystem to Ensure Student Success

4. Critical reflection

Centering student voice and equity requires that faculty and other higher education professionals engage in critical reflection about how they and their courses present barriers for students. Transformative educators acknowledge their own biases and assumptions, examine their materials for those biases, and are mindful of how their thoughts and actions reflect those biases.

Critical reflection means asking ourselves questions like:

  • What can I learn about myself that can help me understand my own choices, behaviors and actions, and help me understand how I operate in my courses and how I impact those around me?
  • How will I and my students benefit from inclusive, student-centered learning environments?
  • How do you show up to facilitate a learning experience that encourages and validates students’ diverse perspectives, identities, and cultural contexts?

A significant form of reflection is asking how the learning experiences we design are perceived by students. How likely are they to say that all students are treated fairly, that their professor shows that they care about how students do in their classes, or that their professor encourages the diverse perspectives of students?

One useful tool for critical reflection is Every Learner Everywhere’s Equity in Digital Learning Student Survey instrument. Its design enables a program or institution to position students’ course experiences as data to inform course and instructional improvement.

Learn more: Continuous Improvement Strategies for Advancing Quality Digital Learning

5. Advocacy for change

Every Learner and its partners advocate for transformative conversations about digital learning that center students, not least by including and foregrounding student perspectives in those conversations. We facilitate conversations with big-picture questions about who students are, what our aspirations are for them, and what their own aspirations are for themselves. And we try to highlight practical everyday examples of advocacy.

For example, Arieale Rodgers, who co-authored a series of strategy guides for equity-centered digital teaching and learning, spoke in an interview about how the educators interested in that work are coming from different levels of engagement. She makes the point that taking up equity work requires systemic change in institutions of higher education, and there are many practical ways that faculty can facilitate those conversations in their departments in ways that promote change.

The evidence is clear that gateway courses as they have traditionally been designed and delivered often slow down or derail student progress. Data shows that Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students are disproportionately held back by gateway courses due to systemic barriers contributing to equity gaps, leading to lower retention and graduation rates. Digital learning combined with evidence-based teaching practices presents opportunities not only to smooth down those barriers but to transform our institutions to center student care and equity.

Learn how Every Learner can support your institution’s transformation