Every Learner Everywhere

New Literature Review Shows the Promise of Equitable Digital Learning and the Paucity of Evidence for It

Despite the promise that digital learning has to close equity gaps, there is a serious paucity of data that demonstrates that promise being realized. Studies that illuminate the impact of digital learning on Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students are scarce and, when they exist, are limited, according to a new literature review, The Impact of Digital Learning on Minoritized and Poverty-Affected College Students.

“We have learned anecdotally that technology on its own does not necessarily support minoritized students,” says the report’s author, Laura DaVinci, Associate Director of Every Learner Everywhere.

“We wanted to see if the literature on digital learning actually was in line with what we were seeing in the field. Unfortunately, while there is a lot of research on digital learning on its own, there is very little on digital learning’s impact on equity gaps and on our target population. Too much of the discussion about digital learning is still obscured by aggregated data and by techno-solutionism.”

Nevertheless, the review does arrive at a few data-supported findings, such as:

  • Active learning matters — Meaningful reductions in equity gaps only take place when there is deliberate course redesign coupled with active learning.
  • Teacher training matters — One study of online courses showed that students had better learning outcomes in a section led by a novice instructor trained in cognitive psychology than in a section relying heavily on lectures led by a highly rated instructor.
  • Course structure is critical — One study showed that increasing the class structure in online and hybrid classes halved the equity gap between white and Black students.

A new take on researching digital learning

The Impact of Digital Learning on Minoritized and Poverty-Affected College Students reviews publications from peer-reviewed journal articles, non-profit organizations, individual institutions, and individual courseware providers. It encompasses digital learning defined as a range of curricular models, content, tools, design strategies, and teaching practices that personalize learning for students in blended and online learning environments.

The review is organized into two categories of impactful practices: pedagogy and technology. The first discusses studies that address practices to improve minoritized student outcomes such as active learning, teacher training, and online and hybrid course structure. The technology section discusses several studies that investigate correlations between instructional technology and minoritized students.

Along with descriptions of several key research studies in these areas, DaVinci includes commentary and insights from Emma Sullivan, Eddie Frausto, and Chidinmma Egemonu, recent interns at Every Learner Everywhere who helped with drafting the review.

“I asked our student interns if they had seen any of these practices, such as active learning, in their college classrooms,” DaVinci says. “I think their perspective and voices will inspire readers and researchers with new focus and energy.”

Highlighting techno-solutionism and aggregated data

DaVinci sees the report as a check on the tendency toward techno-solutionism in digital learning — viewing and using technology uncritically as an ideal fix for equity gaps.

“Higher education must not fall for techno-solutionism and adopt software without knowing who benefits from it or whether it might harm specific student populations, and without an intentional implementation to ensure the tool will benefit traditionally and systemically excluded students,” DaVinci says. “Without careful planning and consideration, technology can actually be a hindrance to student success, particularly students most in need.”

The report also shows how many claims for the impact of digital learning depend on aggregated data that obscures the experiences of particular student populations. “Students in a class are not a monolith,” she explains. “An instructor may implement new software and see a 10 percent increase in test scores, but that may just represent high-achieving students doing better. Aggregated data does not capture the nuances of digital learning’s effects.”

The literature review shows that intentional design is critical to a successful implementation of digital learning. “Course design, pedagogy, instructional practices, engagement, and access all play a role in building equity in digital learning,” says DaVinci. “All the studies I found highlighted a different piece, and the more pieces you incorporate, the better the results.”

Why the gap in research exists

The lack of studies from publishers was particularly surprising, DaVinci says. Since many institutions are focused on addressing equity gaps, she expected to find that publishers used data to increase sales to those schools.

The most on-point data about digital learning that focused on specific student populations often came from individual institutions, particularly community colleges and HBCUs that have successfully implemented courseware to decrease equity gaps through course redesign and data analytics. These were often in the form of case studies about a small set of courses. Data about program-wide implementations was less common.

The literature review shows that digital learning’s impact on minoritized, poverty-affected, and first-generation students is an area ripe for research, but faculty need release time and financial support to design and undertake these studies. “Organizations like Every Learner are here to assist,” DaVinci says, “We are always willing to help those in the field fill gaps in research on minoritized students and support their work as much as possible. You are not alone.”

DaVinci emphasizes that, while the field should expect reliable studies to support the claims for digital learning, an absence of data doesn’t mean no progress on addressing equity gaps is being made. “As I said, we know anecdotally that just putting digital tools in place doesn’t automatically get results,” she says.

“But we also know anecdotally that a lot of amazing work is happening on the ground. If implementation and professional development are difficult and under-resourced, naturally, so is institutional research.”

DaVinci is optimistic that better data is on the horizon. “Today’s growing number of small-scale studies are the seeds for tomorrow’s meta-analyses,” she says. “In the last few years, momentum on equity conversations has been building. Many of the studies I found were recent. My bet is we’re close to seeing many more.”

Download The Impact of Digital Learning on Minoritized and Poverty-Affected College Students