How colleges can face the digital equity gap

July 7, 2020

Understanding students’ learning environments can go a long way

By Traci G. Lee

(Maria Symchych-Navrotska/iStock)

As uncertainty looms over the next academic year for many, college educators are faced with questions about what their future classrooms may look like as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect daily life.

According to Stephen Aguilar, an assistant professor of education at USC Rossier, it’s crucial that universities first understand the digital equity gap. In a paper published in June, Aguilar describes the gap as a result of the tools an institution may employ without first properly engaging students.

“One of the good ways to understand the gap is, often, it’s sort of a gap in understanding,” said Aguilar, who teaches in USC Rossier’s Organizational Change and Leadership online program. He explained that institutions tended to make decisions about technologies before understanding their students’ general needs or capabilities. For example, having to share a home computer or having limited or no access to reliable Wi-Fi are some of the issues that students may face.

Beyond understanding technological capabilities, knowing the environment or support system a student has can be key to recognizing the gap, and can help with seeking solutions to close it.

“We can’t shoehorn last year’s syllabus into this year and expect students to do well,” Aguilar said. “That doesn’t make any sense because the context has changed and the learning environment has changed.”

New projects, same elements

That’s something that Adam Bell, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington’s College of Education, was faced with during the Spring quarter. Bell teaches in UW’s Education, Communities & Organizations program, which asks students to think about how learning happens within and across settings. His courses typically include community walks, visits to locations around the city (including libraries and parks) and in-person interviews.

Those elements needed to be adapted into various interactions online. One solution was to not require that students meet synchronously, which allowed them to remain engaged no matter their time zone or their access to certain technologies. He also sought alternate solutions to group projects—such as discussion boards—so that the collaborative and leadership components of the course wouldn’t be entirely lost.

“It definitely had to be adapted to a lot of independent work,” Bell said.

Ultimately, he felt that the students got out of the course what he and his colleagues intended because of conversations that were had early on to try and understand students’ needs.

“We can’t shoehorn last year’s syllabus into this year and expect students to do well. That doesn’t make any sense because the context has changed and the learning environment has changed.”

“We were checking in with students constantly during our online lectures when people did come [and] we would send out announcements and emails,” Bell explained. “We also had phone calls with students when needed, if they couldn’t get online.”

He also added that, for the first time, UW provided an option for mid-quarter course evaluations, which gave insight into barriers that students may have faced during the shift to online learning.

Those types of surveys can and should identify areas where students may struggle if an institution implements technology that its students are unable to access, Aguilar said—and those lessons can be carried beyond the pandemic.

Accessible and inclusive

For Kishonna Gray, an assistant professor in communication and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, this moment is a necessary challenge to professors to re-think their teaching methods in order to be more inclusive.

“If we had had an orientation around disability justice, then we would have been able to create accessible classes from jump in the first place,” Gray said, pointing out that there have been diverse learners over the years who’ve asked for classrooms to be more accessible. If accessibility had been more of a priority, she said, then practices such as pre-preparing and uploading lectures would already be in place.

Gray initially began teaching classes online at Eastern Kentucky University and has continued to do so at UIC. Because of her experience, Gray was quick to observe the areas where her colleagues struggled when it came to transitioning to online learning—including the loss of authority and a misunderstanding of technology.

“You have a lot of folks that are trying to do too much: trying to incorporate too many things, trying to be too tech savvy,” she said.

Echoing Aguilar’s recommendation, Gray said professors needed to listen to their students.

“I think that we have just lost sight that there’s a person on the other end that is still trying to survive and make it through the day, just as we are as well,” she said.

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