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Every Learner Everywhere

Higher Ed Should Use the Experience of COVID to Accelerate Equity-Centered Institutional Transformation

During 2020 and 2021, equity gaps were exacerbated while institutions shifted to distance learning as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The sudden transition to new learning models left behind many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students when college and university course design wasn’t thought out carefully.

In this condensed and edited interview, Jessica Rowland Williams, Director of Every Learner Everywhere, says universities have an opportunity to mitigate the lasting and inequitable effects of COVID-19 on minoritized and poverty-affected students and to accelerate the transformation to equity-centered institutions.

What was the impact of the sudden shift to remote learning?

Historically, some faculty push back against using digital tools and transitioning online. In a way, the COVID-19 situation was a unique opportunity because it’s forcing everyone to do something different.

Jessica Rowland Williams, Director of Every Learner Everywhere

Jessica Rowland Williams, Director of Every Learner Everywhere

What we’re learning, however, is that there are real issues from an equity lens. Students who are historically underserved are struggling the most. They are students who, in some cases, don’t have access to technology, don’t have access to quiet spaces, and aren’t familiar with engaging and learning in these ways.

We are running the risk of exacerbating the inequities that already existed before we transitioned to online.

Related reading: “This is the time to do it”: How the Shift to Digital Learning Can Re-energize Equity Work

What mindset shifts will help institutions better support minoritized students?

Previous research has taught us that the main challenges for students enrolled in online courses include feeling isolated, lack of community, and limited engagement with the instructor. Implementing high-quality teaching strategies is going to become an important factor in course design and successful management of large online courses. Some of these strategies include keeping work relevant and manageable, creating opportunities for collaboration and discussion, and providing regular feedback to students.

Also, institutions are going to have to think empathetically and realistically about their students.

Sometimes we lose sight of what it really means to be a student affected by poverty, or to have a family, or to have childcare responsibilities. They’re doing their schoolwork by hiding out in their cars to escape a noisy house. They’re typing papers on their phones, because that’s their internet access. They’re working increased hours because they work in healthcare or the military.

I think we take for granted that all of our students are 19 and just went home and are sitting in a quiet bedroom at their parents’ house with wifi.

Related reading: Optimizing High-Quality Digital Learning Experiences: A Playbook for Faculty

How can colleges and universities keep checking in on those assumptions?

One way you can think empathetically and realistically is to make sure you have different voices at the table when you’re making decisions. You need people who have different lived experiences. Otherwise you miss out on those slight nuances that make really important differences.

It’s hard for anyone to transition to online learning. Even if they have the technology, some students just don’t have the study skills or the self-direction. A crisis makes it harder for students to be personally resourceful. There’s a bit of privilege in assuming that everyone can just carry on as normal.

‍Related reading: Caring for Students Playbook: Six Recommendations

What will be the long-term implications of the COVID-19 era?

This is happening in K-12 schools, as well. There’s a whole generation of students entering college who will have had different learning experiences. If institutions are not able to individualize learning for each student, we’re going to run into issues. How in the world are faculty going to quickly assess student knowledge and then meet all the individual learning needs? It’s an enormous task.

It’s just time for a change. Let’s be honest. Higher ed cannot be the same. The way we’ve let down racially and ethnically minoritized and poverty-affected students has been so normalized for so long that it’s been easy to find excuses as to why we couldn’t change. Now we’re at this turning point. Things just can’t be the same anymore.

Institutions are going to have to develop more innovative teaching and learning strategies. Prior to COVID, innovation was a luxury, but now it’s a necessity. The stakes are too high.

Related reading: Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders

What is the role of digital learning technology for equity-centered institutions? 

Investing in adaptive technology and other digital learning tools and designing for technology-enhanced learning will help institutions address all the equity gaps they’re going to face in the coming years. Students are going to have varying levels of knowledge at the start of a course and varying rates of progress. That happens naturally with any course, and now this situation is going to exacerbate that variation. 

Adaptive technology allows faculty to provide individualized attention to students at scale. It’s unique in that it meets students where they are in their educational development. And it also allows for remediation within the course. There is growing evidence in the field that tells us when adaptive courseware is implemented effectively, it closes equity gaps.

Related reading: Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide

How do you advise institutions with high-stakes gateway courses to prepare for what comes next?

Successful institutions share resources. Even between faculty within the same school, they try hard to share. They recognize they don’t have a lot of time to browse around when they’re trying to transition their course online. We need to be sharing resources as much as possible between students, between faculty, from faculty and students, from students to faculty. The Every Learner Everywhere blog is a location where we will continue to elevate the best resources and exemplars in the field.

Building communities of practice will also be important. Once this wave of frantic craziness has passed, people will want to reflect on what just happened. We’ll want to share and to talk — to find communities that allow you to debrief and identify the lessons learned. 

There is going to come a point where we actually have the opportunity to start planning and not just be reactive about how we implement high-quality remote learning opportunities for students.

When you’re ready to start working on that future, Every Learner Everywhere has a growing library of toolkits and guides you can download.

And, in the spirit of building community, feel free to reach out. Let us know what you’re working on and what challenges you’re running into. The Every Learner Everywhere network is composed of leading experts in the field in digital learning.

I know we can turn this into an opportunity to build equity-centered institutions that work better for minoritized and poverty-affected students.

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Interview conducted by Jessie Kwak, a freelance writer specializing in education technology and higher education.

Originally published March 2020. Updated July 2021 with additional information and references.

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