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What Tech Says About Your DEI Work: Barriers to Equitable Digital Learning and Ways We Can Remove Them

A slightly different version of this article appeared originally on WCET Frontiers, the blog for WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

During August 2021, WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies has published a series of articles on the theme of Enabling Difference that explores how higher education approaches diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In the introduction to the series, Chantae Recasner, a member of WCET’s DEI working group, said that “difference is being enabled in so many outstanding ways at institutions across the country.” We hope to learn from and share the excellent work that is taking place. Previous articles in the series have looked at the impact of DEI work on strategic planning, data establishing how equity matters, and leveraging analytics to close equity gaps.

This week, we turn our focus to some of the early technology barriers to equity that students run into. Faculty may be tempted to think digital classrooms are equitable when technology tools address accessibility needs; when all videos are captioned or have transcripts, images have alt tags, and documents and web pages are properly formatted for screen readers. 

However, we challenge you to be aware of other barriers that would make access inequitable in the online classroom. Put another way, implementing functional tools to provide “accessible technology” is only a part of making technology accessible. 

Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders, developed by Intentional Futures and Every Learner Everywhere, a WCET network partner, explains that “equity is achieved when the varied needs of people are considered when developing programming, policies, and pedagogies. While equality is often deployed in the interests of placation and pacification, equity is deployed in the interest of empowerment for traditionally disempowered peoples.”

“Programming, policies, and pedagogies” covers a lot of territory, and in that territory a large number of barriers to access and progress can grow over time. Educators have a responsibility — and really an exciting opportunity — to identify and remove as many of them as they can as they build and revise online courses.

For example, consider the varied ways online students interact with technology during a term. Apart from the work of learning — interacting with one another, with faculty, or with the material and assessments (all points of contact that can produce their own inequities) — they can have individual and significantly unequal experiences just logging in to a digital component for a class and getting started in order to participate. Below are four areas where early barriers to equity in digital learning can lurk, and ideas to help college and university instructors and administrators remove them.

1. How students connect

EDUCAUSE regularly researches student technology use, and data from a survey of over 9,000 undergraduates in 2021 shows that most, but not all, report having a device to handle their remote learning. 

chart on types of device issues experienced by students

Image: EDUCAUSE, Student Experiences with Connectivity and Technology in the Pandemic

Reading between the lines, however, shows significant inequity in the devices that students rely on to connect to their online education. For example, 3 percent relied on their cell phones, and for more than 25 percent, their device had fallen short of their needs in some way just in the prior week.

Meanwhile, the sudden shift to emergency remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that many students relied on campus computer labs or other public computers, and many campuses responded by expanding laptop loaner programs.

Readings, discussions, assessments, attendance policies, and other course elements that assume every student has the same laptop computer ready to go will amplify existing inequities. Lessons Learned: A Toolkit for Post-Pandemic Higher Education with Equity and Student Care at the Center offers practical ways to build from the experiences of teaching during the COVID-19 emergency.

2. Where students connect

The same EDUCAUSE survey showed that internet access at home is far from reliable enough for many college students using remote learning. Solving this problem is a significant source of stress and unanticipated expenses — 36 percent of respondents said they “always, very often, or sometimes struggled to find an internet connection that met their academic needs.”

Students described a range of creative solutions to their internet connectivity challenges, most of them involving doing work from their cars in the parking lot of a parent’s employer, in campus parking garages, and in the parking lots of 24-hour restaurants. One student described sitting in the driveway of their mother’s home to use that wifi during the pandemic but not being able to go inside because their stepfather was immunocompromised. Other students explained they had internet service but not enough to handle the new demands of videoconferencing, which required increased spending on higher internet connectivity.

Faculty should consider where students connect when planning class schedules, due dates, and participation policies. Requiring students to be online at particular times will tend to exacerbate inequity. Flexibility and creativity about those expectations help students who can’t get online consistently and reliably.

3. The cost of digital tech

A study of student perceptions of adaptive learning courseware at the University of Mississippi showed that students can be sensitive to the cost of distance learning technology tools but don’t uncritically resent the expense in every case.

As one of the co-authors of the study, Patricia O’Sullivan, Content Manager at Every Learner Everywhere, explained, how and when the cost shows up influences student perceptions. In some cases, the courseware was bundled in course fees. In other cases, it’s bundled in the textbook price or is an additional expense like a second textbook.

“It turned into a confusing situation for students because they never knew when they entered a class: Does my course fee pay for this, do I have to buy this, and if I have to buy this, what am I getting, and how long does it last?’” O’Sullivan explained. “There was no standard access period, point of sale, or package.”

Students were more likely to value the courseware in advanced courses in their majors and more likely to complain about the expense for introductory and general education courses outside their majors.

Courseware — along with old-fashioned textbooks — are only part of the expenses that can surprise students during a term. Test proctoring fees and virtual lab kits, for example, along with the unanticipated data overages and internet subscription costs discussed above, can create conditions of inequitable access. 

Faculty should ensure the growing number of convenient tools available for remote learning don’t also create significant new cost burdens for students.

4. Digital experiences matter 

Many of the issues described above are commonly summarized as “the digital divide.” But, as Barbara Means, Executive Director of Learning Sciences Research at Digital Promise, explained in a webinar last year, devices are only one facet of the digital divide. Even if two students went through their K-12 education with the same hardware, they can have significantly different digital learning experiences.

Specifically, some students have more experience with the inquiry-based, project-based, and self-directed digital learning that a college education extends, and other students experience digital learning that looks more like “drill-and-kill” worksheets on a computer screen.

Educators should design projects and assessments without assuming every student has the same familiarity with what Means calls “empowering” uses of technology. Institutions and individual faculty should consider ways to provide additional structured experiences to prepare students for self-directed digital learning.

What you, your department, and your institution can do

It may seem overwhelming to think through every permutation of inequitable access that students can experience. For example, among the many other issues we don’t describe here are specific personal technology requirements individual students might have (screen readers, translators, screen magnification tools, video playback control tools, etc.).

But keeping the student at the center of course design can help you move in the direction of equitable experiences without getting overwhelmed. One excellent resource that discusses many of these issues and offers practical suggestions is The Caring for Students Playbook from Every Learner Everywhere, Achieving the Dream, and The Online Learning Consortium. Many of the recommendations in it are premised on course policies with flexibility around due dates and participation so that technology connection issues and cost don’t become major barriers to academic progress.

The good news is that your peers have developed many “programming, policies, and pedagogies” to learn from. For example, in an interview for the Every Learner Everywhere blog, Francesca Carpenter, Director of Equity Initiatives at Achieving the Dream, advises providing students multiple ways to engage with a course, including:

  • downloadable modules so work can be done offline,
  • lecture notes incorporated inside a slide deck as well as on a separate document,
  • collaborative note taking, which can help students learn during the lecture and also creates a resource that can be referenced after the lecture,
  • audio files as an alternative to video, because they require less bandwidth to download,
  • sharing video to platforms like YouTube, where they can easily be viewed without downloading, and
  • mailing printed materials to students who may not have any way to access the internet.

In short, faculty can provide materials in a variety of formats so that students have many options for accessing and engaging in a course. Additionally, a department or institution should: 

  • consider the cost of all the materials, software, and databases, 
  • implement courseware “scholarship” programs that reduce the cost, 
  • move toward authentic assessments instead of technology to monitor cheating, and
  • expand and publicize laptop loaner and mobile hotspot loaner programs.

The bottom line: Your tech choices send a signal

Equity, diversity, and inclusion in digital learning can be difficult, but it is necessary and important work. Our advice here is only a potential starting point for your own DEI work in the digital classroom. We have focused on technology interaction, because it sends a signal to our students how engaged we actually are in promoting equity for all learners. Properly employed, digital learning technologies help support student success. 

Meanwhile there is also content, instructional design, classroom practices, assessment, formative assessments, etc. that aren’t discussed here and that also need to be considered in setting up your courses. These additional elements can also create or reduce barriers to access.

We’d like to end this post with a question: In what ways have you effectively used technology in the classroom to create better equity and inclusion and to foster a diverse environment? Leave a reply below, and WCET members can continue the conversation on the online community platform, wcetMIX. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

Mark Porcaro is Executive Director of Online and Adult Learning at Wichita State University and a WCET Steering Committee Member.

Robert McGuire is a freelance writer and editor for higher education institutions and related nonprofit organizations, including for Every Learner Everywhere.

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