As adaptive learning and other technologies become more common, colleges and universities need to center equity in digital learning. Thoughtful implementation of those tools needs to identify and confront equity gaps. Otherwise online learning risks reproducing the existing disparities that disproportionately affect minoritized, poverty-affected, and first-generation students. Large enrollment gateway courses in particular, which increasingly rely on adaptive learning and other new digital learning technologies, can be make-or-break for those college and university students.
A new research publication from Tyton Partners and The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, with support from Every Learner Everywhere, features case studies of programs, initiatives, and individual courses at several institutions that illustrate practical ways to center equity in digital learning. Strategies for Implementing Digital Learning Infrastructure to Support Equitable Outcomes: A Case-based Guidebook for Institutional Leaders outlines specific recommendations and examples across critical elements of digital learning infrastructure.
The guidebook challenges colleges and universities to:
- develop an institution-wide approach;
- make it sustainable over the long term;
- create policy, expertise, and capability that support equitable course design;
- develop a culture that provides incentives, professional learning opportunities, and technology to educators using digital pedagogies in their work;
- use analytics and ongoing evaluation to measure progress;
- ensure every student has the support needed to access digital tools;
- know their limitations and strategically partner with organizations or vendors to augment their capacity.
The guidebook includes in-depth profiles of several colleges and universities that have successfully centered equity in digital learning in unique ways suitable for their institutions. Each extended profile includes lessons learned and a summary of data on progress. Below is a sampling of tactics and practical activities from those profiles. Many of these are part of larger institution-wide transformations.
1. Faculty learning communities focus on adaptive courseware
Cuyahoga Community College, known as Tri-C, has a culture of faculty-driven faculty development in support of three institutional principles: access, equity, and success. New adaptive learning initiatives engage faculty learning communities (FLCs) that include 6-10 members, and faculty receive service credits and professional development stipends for being involved.
Members of the faculty learning communities collaborate and learn from one another. For example, Professor Stacey Souther used FLCs to scale the use of adaptive courseware in the Psychology Department. Its General Psych course’s pass rates increased from 69 percent in 2018 to 79 percent two years later. Adaptive courseware now serves 52 gateway courses across 7 disciplines at Tri-C.
2. M.O.R.E. prepares students for digital learning
Another tactic used at Tri-C to center equity in digital learning was to engage the Online Learning and Academic Technology (OLAT) department to provide a course to support its students’ growth in digital literacy. My Online Readiness Experience (M.O.R.E.) is a required one-hour course to develop a baseline understanding of the digital learning skills needed for success.
The interactive course includes three graded sections: Technology, Study Skills, and Communication Skills. Students must complete the interactive course within their first three semesters. Over 7,500 students at the college have successfully completed the M.O.R.E. course.
3. Required certification for online teaching
Fayetteville State University wanted to support more of its minoritized students wishing to pursue high-tech careers where there have been persistent opportunity gaps. The university’s leadership requires faculty to undertake a certification program before teaching an online/hybrid course. The six-week program helps faculty develop courses that meet all Quality Matters standards and ensures their ability to use digital pedagogies in ways that center equity.
Nearly 100 percent of FSU’s faculty are now certified, and in an evaluation of the program done after the 2020-2021 school year, 91 percent rated the certification program as excellent.
4. Specialist helps faculty create accessible courses
Georgia State University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Online Education (CETLOE) oversees campus-wide digital learning activities and is a resource increasingly drawn on by faculty.
During the pandemic, CETLOE created an accessibility specialist role to provide faculty and instructional designers with the necessary training and guidance for specific course structure modifications needed to guarantee their courses were accessible. Other resources, such as design checklists, help faculty evaluate their courses in consultation with accessibility specialists. GSU leadership notes that as a result of the checklists in particular, more faculty are using CETLOE to prioritize accessibility.
5. Centralized course creation emphasizes consistency
Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s largest public postsecondary institution, wants every student taking a gateway course to have a high-quality learning experience. Working together, the college’s instructional design team and curriculum committees developed centralized versions of courses, including textbooks. Course materials are presented as packages that faculty can use in whole or part, ensuring that all are sharing the resources and practices institution-wide.
Courses redesigned using the resources saw significant declines in course withdrawal rates, which disproportionately impact minoritized students. One gateway English course had its withdrawal rate cut in half after implementing the centralized version.
6. Free educational resources for all
The 40 Tennessee Board of Regents institutions encourage the adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER). Institutional grants provide system-level staff to coordinate an initiative to center equity in the use of OER.
Students enrolled in 2021-2022 are saving $1.139 million by using OER instead of used textbooks. The Regents, in partnership with TN Open Education, are developing a five-year plan to bring OER to schools statewide.
7. Support with technology and course redesign
Sixty-five percent of California State University, Fresno’s students are the first in their family to attend college. The university is using technology support for students and pedagogical training for faculty to reduce the rate of students dropping, failing, or withdrawing from gateway courses.
The California State University Connectivity Contributing to Equity and Student Success program (CSUCCESS) provides first-year students with mobile devices such as internet hotspots, which the students keep throughout their college career. In fall 2020, there was a significant difference in term GPAs between students with access to hotspots (3.30) and those without access (3.06).
The DISCOVERe initiative targets those gateway courses most likely to limit a student’s progress and has been redesigning them since the 2021-2022 school year. A total of 60 courses are being redesigned to center equity. The course redesign has so far resulted in lower DFW rates at the department level for math and chemistry.
Institutional focus on equity in digital learning
These seven inspiring projects and others profiled in the guidebook are generally part of comprehensive institution-wide efforts to use adaptive and other digital learning tools effectively. The key learnings in most of the cost studies emphasize the need for cross-unit collaboration, leadership buy-in, support for faculty development, culture building for change, and infrastructure investments.Read the guidebook Strategies for Implementing Digital Learning Infrastructure to Support Equitable Outcomes