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Research shows that student performance in gateway courses can predict retention, the likelihood of graduation and all-around student success. Historically, minority students have been underserved in these courses. This leads to a higher number of minority students receiving grades of D or F, withdrawing or receiving incomplete grades, often resulting in lower retention rates.
While online learning is not without its challenges, experts say it can be a catalyst for improving course outcomes for disadvantaged and historically marginalized students.
Jessica Rowland Williams is the director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network of 12 organizations that help post-secondary education institutions use new technology and innovative teaching solutions to help Black, Latino, Indigenous, economically disadvantaged and first-generation students. In a recent EDUCAUSE webinar, she shared strategies on how faculty and institutional leaders can implement equitable online learning at scale.
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Acknowledging Disparity in Higher Education
Williams said the way forward begins by looking at the higher education environment and its history through the lens of social justice.
“Social justice is about the fair distribution of opportunities and privileges as they apply to individuals within a society,” Williams says. When it comes to education, it’s important to consider how race, gender and wealth, among many other factors, determine the quality of education to which a person has access.
To emphasize social justice and enhance access to higher education for underserved groups, society must acknowledge and understand existing privilege and ensure other factors such as poverty, mental health and safety are addressed.
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What Does an Equitable Digital Learning Environment Look Like?
Equitable education requires innovative teaching and the use of digital learning tools, inclusive courses and a representative, culturally diverse curriculum.
Innovative teaching begins with “an awareness that all students do not have access to the same time, space and resources needed for success,” Williams says.
It also requires the use of digital learning tools that cultivate an online learning space for every student. These spaces should include easy-to-navigate educational platforms to access course content. Resources like breakout rooms should be incorporated for synchronous activities during live classroom sessions. Finally, ensuring students can engage with their peers and instructors through virtual activities is crucial.
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The first step to creating inclusive courses is ease of access. Students should be able to focus on doing a task rather than on how to do it. Content should be easily accessible and supported by internal platform resources, like virtual office hours and discussion boards. Above all else, platforms housing inclusive courses should be intuitive and consistent.
The second component to inclusive courses is acknowledging that students accessing these courses hold a variety of intersectional identities. It is not enough to merely provide content to students; this content should also be representative of those varied identities. Digital learning tools such as adaptive courseware support and engage students in their learning across cultures and identities.
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5 Strategies for Sustaining Equitable Higher Education
Once digital tools are in place and curricula are updated, how do institutions ensure equitable education is maintained?
- Identify the problem: Institutions must acknowledge the disparities among their student populations. Only by identifying gaps in performance, access and support can change begin.
- Be clear about engagement with digital tools: Students should have a clear understanding of how to use their institution-specific online tools to enhance performance and success. This includes access to support. Tools aren’t worth much if students don’t know how to use them, or if they run into challenges during use and do not have access to support teams or IT.
- Do not make assumptions about students: Students come into learning environments with different social experiences, educational backgrounds and cultural knowledge. To create a welcoming environment where students feel empowered to engage and ask for help, institutions and educators should refrain from relying on assumptions about their student population.
- Create a social presence: Creating a collaborative environment has been shown to improve learning. This can be harder to cultivate in online environments, but online resources, community-based activities and discussions can enhance the learning experience.
- Be proactive and transparent: Educators should not assume students will reach out to them. It’s important, especially in an online environment, to be proactive and consistently check in on students.
Williams notes that higher education is “one of the few mechanisms that can provide opportunities for historically disenfranchised students and empower them with knowledge.” Optimizing online learning environments to support this mission can bring us one step closer to closing the gap.