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Every Learner Everywhere

Preparing for a Post-COVID Learning Model That Better Serves Disadvantaged Students

Gateway courses — the first credit-bearing courses in a program of study — have the ability to make or break a student’s learning experience. They are a critical juncture of the college experience because they tend to be less personalized learning experiences with hundreds of students.

If a student performs poorly in a gateway course, they may not have the foundational knowledge to do well in subsequent courses, or they may drop out of college altogether. This is particularly true for students who don’t fit the traditional college student mold and can be left out by traditional approaches to teaching.

Presently, this potential achievement gap is being exacerbated while institutions are shifting to distance learning as a result of the current COVID-19 crisis. This sudden transition to new learning models may leave behind first-generation, low-income and other underrepresented students if the course design isn’t thought out carefully.

Portrait of Director Jessica Rowland Williams
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 impacts of COVID-19 and to transform the way they support students.

What’s the impact of this sudden shift to remote learning?

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

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.

What mindset shifts will help institutions better support these 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 low-income student, 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.

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

One way you can think empathetically and realistically is to make sure that you have different voices at the table when you’re making decisions. You need people at the table 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.

What will be the long-term implications of this crisis?

This is happening in K-12 schools, as well. There’s a whole generation of students entering college next year who may not be as well prepared as they would have been.

If institutions are not able to individualize the learning experience 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 the needs of all the individual learning needs in a way that doesn’t leave behind the students who have knowledge gaps? 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 underrepresented 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. A month ago, innovation was a luxury, but now it’s a necessity. The stakes are too high.

Why do you think adaptive learning in particular is important?

Investing in adaptive technology and other digital learning tools and designing for technology-enhanced learning will help institutions address all the knowledge 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. The achievement gaps will get even wider.

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 achievement gaps.

How do you advise institutions with these 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. This isn’t going to be something that wraps up quickly. We may be here for a while.

Once we get through this immediate crisis, 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 something that works better for disadvantaged students.

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