Today I’m thrilled to help kick off our Frontiers and WCET Steering Committee working group series on equity and quality in higher education digital learning. Throughout the next several weeks, we will hear from Steering Committee members and experts in the field discuss the bond between quality digital learning and equity.

Today’s post, from Brenda Boyd and Julie Straub, highlights the ongoing educational access issues brought into the light during the COVID-19 pandemic and opportunities for our institutions and organizations. Thank you Brenda and Julie!

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


The coronavirus pandemic acted as a megaphone for the inequity of our current education systems. The majority of learning has undergone a digital transformation, and access, or lack thereof, was at the core of this critical junction. It became evident that higher education is not a duality of online learning versus on-campus learning but rather an immersive learning experience that transcends modality. The reality is that equity and quality are interdependent in the context of education.

Current State of Affairs – Expanding Scope of Digital Learning in Advancing Quality and Equity

Extending access to college and university classes is possible with an evolved approach to academic offerings. Improvements have been made with recent efforts to further an inclusive pedagogy and advance equity in higher education; however, touting the success of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives belies the actual condition of opportunities to access to higher education.

As long as such opportunities remain elusive for significant portions of the population, higher education institutions cannot claim true success in their DEI efforts. Racially minoritized students are disproportionately affected by barriers to education like COVID-19. While all racial demographics showed a decrease in post-secondary enrollment in the Spring of 2021, Black and Indigenous students were impacted the most.

Online learning is not without its barriers, but there is no question that this method of education has not been fully realized with a commitment to both equity and high-quality as core tactics of the strategy. Thus, a crucial element of DEI is being overlooked in many higher education strategic plans; access to digital tools extends beyond higher education, as digital equity impacts most aspects of our current society and economy. However, universities that integrate online education fully as part of their DEI strategy can lead the revolution and digital transformation of higher education and support the quality-equity bond.

The disruption of the pandemic increased calls for shifts in accommodations and university culture, as the pre-pandemic learning model could not be sustained. A spotlight on DEI initiatives across all college and university operations platforms means that an equity lens should be applied to procedures, practices, retention, and teaching. This opportunity for advancing equity in higher education allows online learning leaders to serve in strategic, cross-functional, university-wide initiatives, advocating for human-centered experiences regardless of modality, and execution of digital transformation through change innovation.

Through co-designing solutions across campus to execute a blend of methods and modalities, creates innovative responses to a heightened need for inclusion, establish data-informed learning environments that drive decisions and move the present of education into a more equitable future.

The role of a Chief Online Learning Officer (COO) is a creation of the changing times. It is a position that is critical in shaping future culture and strategy; to remain competitive in the continued growth of online learning, new markets, and evolving learning needs that are grounded in access and flexibility. COOs are institutional leaders tasked with a critical aspect of higher education – partnering with university and academic leaders to extend access to higher education and advance DEI initiatives in the online learning arena. Anticipated growth in online students means that colleges and universities need to focus on the services they offer, how they offer them, and whether the methods they’re utilizing are accessible to everyone.

Removing bias and improving equity for online students relies heavily on accessibility. Many students choose digital learning to accommodate their busy personal and professional lives. Jobs, parenting, individual needs, and other responsibilities mean that improved access to education is the only way they can participate in higher education. This access hinges on digital inclusion with improved infrastructure and ensuring high-quality instruction and student services.

The digital divide, ensuring students have access to technical tools to access digital learning, is only one facet of improving equity in online education. Bias continues to plague online learners, as perceptions about their value compared to on-campus students place them at a disadvantage. There is a deeply rooted need to eradicate the bias, systemic racism, and fallacy of meritocracy that creates a chasm between nontraditional learners and equitable opportunities. The historical path to higher education was blazed by the white male demographic, and the route has yet to be redirected to suit any other population as ideally. While white males are still the majority in traditional on-campus classrooms, women and underrepresented learners comprise the growing majority of online learners.

Impact on Faculty and Students

One aspect of college life that declined for many students during the pandemic was connection and belonging. Still, studies show that this component of university life tends to be slightly lacking for racial minorities in general. A 2020 National Survey of Student Engagement study ranked feelings of belonging on a 60-point scale. The results show white students reporting a slightly higher sense of belonging at their universities.

Chart highlighting sense of belonging amoung students, with white students having a slightly higher sense than other racial groups.
Chart highlighting sense of belonging among students.

Students who feel they belong do better overall than their counterparts, including in personal accomplishments, mental health, and academic success. Colleges must foster a sense of mattering and belonging in their students, and human-centered learning is a significant component of this effort. Competition and rankings tend to fuel a university’s movement in a saturated market, but adjusting the focus to student connection is an equitable step in the right direction.

To improve student engagement and belonging, faculty members lead the efforts to uphold the quality of their departments. Quality assurance, in proactive designs as part of DEI initiatives and digital strategies is crucial. It is impossible to know if standards are being met without embedded design of quality assessment for student experience and outcomes, the finite resources of higher education institutions often leave this task up to individual instructors.

Digital strategies must advance equity and excellence in learning that is not based on geographic location. Appropriately allocate resources where they will yield the highest outcome, students, consistently and at scale. This is a tall order for faculty who are already navigating the changing world of teaching and digital learning. Course-level strategies have a substantial impact on students, fostering empathy and awareness for others and strengthening the human connection. Faculty and academic units that develop strategies in online content delivery that are based on research-based frameworks (Community of Inquiry, Universal Design for Learning, Inclusive Pedagogy, etc.) can more easily engage their students and assess learning trajectories. Academic institutions can formulate equity-based curriculum development and context in the design of learning experiences to elevate inclusive excellence for all learners.

As an online learning leader, my experience with digital learning and equity in education innovation spans nearly three decades. Navigating uncharted territories of learning to discover transformative systems is how I’ve built my career. Digital transformation initiatives can successfully advance inclusive pedagogy and equitable learning experiences with integrative, hands-on approaches that yield data-driven outcomes.

Supporting Faculty and Students with Quality and Equity Resources

Fortunately, some in the academic community are responding to the need for more inclusive online learning environments with openly accessible resources. Portland Community College has published a set of diversity definitions that may help your institution with a common understanding if you are starting your work to improve quality and equity.  

Dr. Racheal Brooks, Director, Office of e-Learning at North Carolina Central University and Dr. Sioban Day Grady, Assistant Professor and Program Director of Information Science at North Carolina Central University teamed up to write a Quality Matters white paper entitled “Course Design Considerations for Inclusion and Representation.” In this informative and comprehensive white paper, Drs. Brooks and Grady outline an action plan to aid faculty in developing and sustaining inclusive learning environments. They explain the crucial role of inclusive design and provide three models that support inclusion and representation UDL, Inclusive Design Thinking, and the Morrison, Ross, and Kemp instructional design model. Three theories that foster inclusion and representation are outlined- social emotional learning, Psychosociocultural framework, and validation theory. The theory is turned to practice in the final section with practices that can be utilized right away in course design including emancipating engagement practices. 

During a webinar presented in May of 2022, the authors walked through the sections of the paper and explained how these course design practices can increase feelings of inclusion and representation in courses.

In examining their own implicit biases, faculty can unearth their own assumptions through activities such as Cait Kirby and Heather Fedesco’s workshop on implicit biases, Tell Me More About Alex: Helping Instructors Uncover and Mitigate Their Implicit Biases. Kirby and Fedesco use a role-play method to walk faculty through different scenarios where student “Alex” is presented with different demographic information. Faculty examine the assumptions they make based on the available information, and the conclusions they reach, first on their own then in pairs and finally as a large group. Their article provides information about how you, too, could offer this workshop with your faculty and staff. 

Quality Matters is currently engaged with a 26-member community committee dedicated to improving the QM Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition for a new Seventh Edition to be released in summer 2023. This dedicated committee is examining all of the QM Specific Review Standards and the associated annotations to ensure belonging and inclusion are addressed where appropriate and feasible. Since the QM Rubric applies to all kinds of courses from community colleges to graduate schools, ensuring that the expectations are both realistic and feasible is the line this capable and creative committee walks as they do their work. 

Every Learner Everywhere and Intentional Futures (IF) collaborated on a post by Jessie Kwak where IF’s Tia Holiday  focuses on 5 Ways to Put Equity at the Heart of Instructional Design. The post looks at audience analysis, UDL, examining policies, ensuring access, and using student feedback as tactics that help support equitable course design. 

Students thrive when they see people who look like themselves in their courses. It gives them the feeling that they belong and that they can achieve their goals. Inclusive images in courses can be useful in providing a welcoming environment.

Below are links to several diverse stock photography sites. When using representative images and using diverse names in examples for case studies, examine the ways in which representative images are communicating about a particular group of people. Avoid stereotyping with image use and include images that help everyone feel included and valued. 

Institutions, faculty, and students can all work together to ensure a culture of inclusion is developed within the campus, whether it is online, hybrid, or on-campus. We hope these resources will help you and your campus move the needle toward more equitable and inclusive learning environments. 

Brenda Boyd

WCET Steering Committee, Senior Academic Director, Program Services, Quality Matters


brenda.boyd@qualitymatters.org

@QMBrenda

LinkedIn Profile

Julie Straub

Senior Executive Director, Division of Professional Studies , Butler University

References:

“Advancing Digital Equity for All: Community-Based Recommendations for Developing Effective Digital Equity Plans to Close the Dig.” Office of Educational Technology, 23 September 2022, https://tech.ed.gov/files/2022/09/DEER-Resource-Guide_FINAL.pdf.

“Champion of Change: Why Chief Digital Officers Will Become Essential.” WittKieffer, https://www.wittkieffer.com/thought-leadership/champion-of-change-why-chief-digital-officers-will-become-essential/.

Christians, Dayna. “This is How Online Leadership is Changing in Higher Education in 2020.” TechSmith, https://www.techsmith.com/blog/online-leadership-education/.

“Faculty Toolkit on Digital Inclusion.” NYU, https://www.nyu.edu/life/global-inclusion-and-diversity/learning-and-development/toolkits/faculty-digital-inclusion.html.

Fredericksen, Eric. “The Future of U.S. Higher Education with Online Learning—Two Steps Forward or One Step Back? – The EvoLLLution The EvoLLLution.” The EvoLLLution, 9 August 2022, https://evolllution.com/programming/program_planning/the-future-of-u-s-higher-education-with-online-learning-two-steps-forward-or-one-step-back/.

Lemon, Jason. “Trends in Online Higher Education Over the Next Five Years – The EvoLLLution The EvoLLLution.” The EvoLLLution, 20 September 2022, https://evolllution.com/revenue-streams/distance_online_learning/trends-in-online-higher-education-over-the-next-five-years/.

Mintz, Steven. “Can Online Education Be a Force for Equity and Institutional Sustainability? | Higher Ed Gamma.” Inside Higher Ed, 1 December 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/can-online-education-be-force-equity-and-institutional-sustainability.

“NSSE 2020 Sense of Belonging.” National Survey of Student Engagement. https://tableau.bi.iu.edu/t/prd/views/NSSESenseofBelonging/NSSESenseofBelonging?%3Aembed=y&%3AisGuestRedirectFromVizportal=y.

“Peralta Online Equity Rubric – Alameda.” Peralta Colleges, https://www.peralta.edu/distance-education/online-equity-rubric.

Peacock, Susi and Cowan, John. “Promoting a Sense of Belonging in Online Learning Communities of Inquiry.” Online Learning Journal, https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/1488.

“Remote Inclusion | Inclusive Pedagogy | The University of Chicago.” Inclusive Pedagogy, https://inclusivepedagogy.uchicago.edu/remote-inclusion.

Smith, Amy. “Access to computers isn’t enough for equity in online learning.” The Hechinger Report, 29 September 2020, https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-equity-in-online-learning-is-about-much-more-than-technology-access/.

Swaak, Taylor. “Online Education Is Booming, but Colleges Risk Lapses in Quality, Report Says.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 August 2022, https://www.chronicle.com/article/online-education-is-booming-but-colleges-risk-lapses-in-quality-report-says.

Turner, Patrick and Zepeda, Efren Miranda. “ERIC – EJ1291497 – Welcoming Ain’t Belonging: A Case Study That Explores How Two-Year Predominantly White Colleges Can Foster an Environment of Validation and Mattering for Men of Color, Higher Education Studies, 2021.” ERIC, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1291497.

Westerman, George and Lundberg, Abbie. “The Transformer CLO.” Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2020/01/the-transformer-clo.

Williams, Damon, et al. “Toward a Model of Inclusive Excellence and Change in Postsecondary Institutions.” Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2005.

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