A year ago, Robert Perez, Manager of Network Development and Strategic Partnerships at Every Learner Everywhere, spoke about an equity and leadership training that he and his colleagues had just completed. At the time, Every Learner Everywhere and its network partners were working to make equity more central to its initiatives developing evidence-based digital learning that improves learning outcomes for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, first-generation and poverty-affected college students.
That conversation was also at the beginning of the first full academic term that many higher education faculty, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were teaching in online formats. A key point that Perez made then was that the rushed and stressful transition was also an opportunity to implement teaching and learning practices with equity at their core.
In the meantime, Every Learner Everywhere and its network partners have: made equity a central part of ongoing work publishing new resource guides, surveys, and original studies; revisited and updated prior work such as the digital learning faculty playbook; and launched new equity-centered initiatives such as the student fellowship program, the digital learning expert network, and an online teaching webinar series.
In this interview, edited and condensed for clarity, Perez reflects on the progress of Every Learner Everywhere and its network partners in the last year, and the ongoing challenge of centering equity in that work.
Do you feel the understanding of equity within the network has evolved during the last year?
We continue to make our understanding of the implications for our work more sophisticated. There are certain places you end up at pretty quickly when you think about equity in digital learning. Access is an example. Another is how to get more equitable outcomes. We’ve tried to go beyond that. There’s a growing appreciation of the intersectionality of students and of the faculty and the administrators bringing change about.
For institutions as a whole we’re trying to understand all the complexity that goes into how we got where we are and how we move forward. We know it’s a really complex social and historical picture. We’re trying to figure out the best points of entry to lead to better solutions and make our work more impactful. Picking that course is a tangle. Myriad factors grow all over each other — the factors within the walls of an institution, along with the broader social backdrop and conversations about socioeconomic conditions and racial equity and justice.
Can you give an example of getting more sophisticated about the implications?
Higher ed is an inequitable system and generates inequitable outcomes. It always has. We can’t really point to a period of time and say, “This is when higher ed was serving all minoritized students and white students. Let’s get back to that place.”
If that’s what we’ve always had, then I don’t think we can get to where we want to be with something that looks like what we have currently. Systemic change is necessary, but the way in which it happens is still in question.
We’re doing the best we can with what we know how to do, which is to help improve pedagogical practices. We have data that does indicate that meaningful results can happen, but there’s a growing sense that we need to go much further.
It’s a work in progress, and we can’t stop what we’re doing to think and then resume once we’ve figured it out, because we know that time is of the essence. Last year, very high-profile cases such as those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery gave these efforts a lot of energy that hadn’t been seen in quite a while.
We tried to refocus our network or get people to recommit. The more we talked and thought about it, the bigger the challenge appeared. The scope and scale of the change that was going to be necessary started to come into focus. I think that can’t help but eventually manifest itself in services that expand on the breadth and depth of what we’re currently doing.
You’re saying it’s unlikely to start an initiative using a fixed perspective on equity. An organization always has to be adapting to what it’s learning along the way.
Yes. Part of the challenge is we’re working in a space where we don’t have a lot of work to draw on. I can think of fields where scholars have traced bright lines showing the impact of racial and socioeconomic inequity — for example, the criminal justice system. There’s been great work showing how policies directly led to inequitable and disparate outcomes for Black and Latinx populations versus white populations.
But when it comes to education, and then digital learning is a specific component of education, we’re having to ask those innovative questions for the first time. Once you get people thinking about the right questions, that can really start momentum, creating space for innovation. I feel like that’s where we are.
A year ago, you said the accelerated shift to online learning created an opportunity to build equitable structures. Do you feel like you’ve actually seen that happening in the last year?
The pandemic forced institutions to work on infrastructure for online and digital learning. A year ago I would’ve said this was an opportunity to disrupt institutions, then, once the pandemic stress is removed, to continue to keep them focused and engaged on the equity work.
But we have those dual stresses still continuing. It feels like we’re still in the grip of the pandemic, and fatigue is working against us at this point. To ask people this far into the pandemic to continue to operate in a way that is stressful and then to continue to engage in equity work in a way is a big ask.
This is against the backdrop of change in presidential administration, which may have caused some people to think we’re not working against headwinds because there’s different leadership. Some of the urgency of the moment is lost, but we have to help people see that this is a continuing opportunity. The window is not closed. It only will be if we allow people to drift back to where they were or to shelve it in favor of other priorities.
Do you feel individual instructors are getting more sophisticated by how their teaching and learning practices create or reduce barriers to equity?
We have services and resources to help educators, and there’s been a lot of appetite and enthusiasm for those opportunities. That is heartening — to be reminded that educators take their jobs very seriously and want to be as effective as they can be. When you come to them with a chance to improve their practice and with data that shows that this is worth their time — that they can really improve outcomes for all their students — a lot of them are ready for that.
Having some success there, we’ve been able to think, “Okay, what about the other two key players in this — students and administrators?” When it comes to students, we started a fellowship program where a cohort of students bring their perspective and round out the work that we’ve been doing with faculty.
We don’t have a dedicated program to unveil yet regarding administrators, but we’re definitely getting a more complete picture. We’ve gotten a great lens on the faculty over the past year. That’s a lot to build off of.
Bringing in the student voice and then incorporating administrators in the not-too-distant future will help us design services that are comprehensive and sensitive to the pressures and concerns of those three stakeholders, and as a result, are scalable and relevant to all sorts of contexts.
Related reading: Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders
In addition to the fellowship program, are there other ways in which the work of Every Learner Everywhere has been more student centered in the last year?
In the network, when we try to anticipate the post-pandemic environment, something that keeps coming up is a desire for creative and timely ways to get student input. We want to have more direct access to students and hear their voices in real time.
The fellowship program is ongoing, and one exciting thing is that it turns out some Fellows are very interested in documenting their experiences and the experiences of their peers. Several of them, via interviews and other documentation, want to share their experience of higher education. That’s been wonderful, because it’s just up to us to give them the tools and let them take the wheel. We’re really excited to see what comes out of all that.
What work on equity in digital learning do you anticipate in the next year?
When we look ahead, we want services with equity so embedded that to talk about the work is to be talking about equity. Often there’s a tendency to say, “Okay, we’ve got this service. Now how can we add equity to it?” We definitely want to move away from that model where you have what you’re doing and then make it equitable. That’s the most significant way these conversations have changed. It has to be something that’s always there in the foundation.
For me, the next question is, “If equity is in the foundation, what needs to be dislodged in the status quo?” That’s still hard to think through, because there aren’t a lot of great examples. There are examples of standing up equity committees or adding an equity lens. But in terms of seeing how an institution has fundamentally changed, I think we’re still in very early stages. My hope is that 10 and 20 years from now the institutions will look back and say, “We’re surprised we did X, Y, or Z for so long.”
In other words, one challenge of equity work is that it’s easier to describe what we’re trying to get away from than what we’re trying to get to.
Yes. We’re operating within the context of a higher education in which inequity has always been in the DNA. You can see progress has been made. Obviously, we’re asking different questions now than 20 years ago.
Consider the faux outrage over critical race theory. The fact is these things are in the conversation. People want to understand race and its impact and are interrogating it in a way that wasn’t happening 10 years ago. LGBTQIA and other social issues are moving more to the forefront and affecting policy. We are moving toward a rethinking of our institutions, our policies, and a lot of really basic assumptions that many of us carry around with us.
We went through an exercise at a staff retreat a few weeks ago where we asked, “If there were a headline in the New York Times 10 years from now about the work of this network, what would we want it to say?” It was a really illuminating exercise to think about what kind of impact we want to make. We wanted it to be bold and dramatic and lasting. The question is to trace back from that, what are the ideas and approaches that get us to that point?
On the plus side, it is possible to look back and see the progress.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that once we crack the code of the work we want to do there’s great success waiting for us. People have every excuse to say, “I have no bandwidth mentally or professionally.” It would have been very understandable, the pressures that everybody has faced, personally and professionally over the past year. Nobody could have been blamed for retreating in some sense. But, in spite of the many challenges in the past year, there’s been tremendous resilience in the network. Nobody has shied away from the challenge.
We’re still encountering a lot of an audience within higher ed that is ready and willing to take up the work for equity. We’ve got to give them a bold vision, well articulated, with clear calls to action and with a set of services and supports that will get them to where they want to be when it comes to student success for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, first-generation and poverty-affected students. Higher education can be what we’ve always wanted to believe it was, which is an avenue for social mobility and personal and professional success, regardless of who you are and where you come from.