The Equity Question: Doing Good By Doing Better

Jul 14, 2020 10:01:05 AM
We’re still coming to grips with the pandemic’s effect on our lives, but early data suggests that its impact on college students has been profound. A recent poll found that 77% of students worried whether they would be able to stay in school and graduate. Those percentages are significantly higher for Black and Latino students (84% and 81% respectively) whose families have been hit harder by the pandemic.

Some fear that many students will not return in the fall or will delay returning. Even for those who do return, the question of equity remains pressing. Will all students have access to the tools and resources they will need to take advantage of online learning? Will their education experience be aligned with their learning needs? Will instructors have the resources they need to design, teach, and assess online courses in a way that serves the needs of every student?

These are hard questions that educators are still coming to terms with during the weeks before colleges and universities across the country return to some form of organized instruction. The rapid pivot to remote learning in the spring left many questions of equity unanswered as instructors struggled to understand student needs.

Some students found themselves at home without high-speed internet or a quiet place to work. Others were juggling school with essential work or taking care of sick relatives. Still others were struggling to make tuition payments. Those issues will not likely be resolved at the start of the fall semester. Access to technologies—whether appropriate devices or high-speed internet—will continue to be a concern. Financial insecurity is likely to increase as housing protections and emergency aid dwindle. And as cases in the U.S. continue to surge in various parts of the country, even finding a safe space to study will have its challenges.

Achieving Equity: One Class at a Time

Earlier this summer, Every Learner Everywhere released a “faculty playbook,” Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID–19. The resource, a collaboration between the umbrella non-profit group, the Online Learning Consortium, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), provides education strategies for institutions and faculty seeking an equity-based approach to online learning.

In an interview with Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Dr. Jessica Rowland Williams, Director of Every Learning Everywhere, explains that “two of the biggest equity challenges … are a lack of access to technology and students feeling disengaged.” The guide offers three levels of advice, from meeting immediate needs to enhancing existing curricula to incorporating best practices for online teaching. While the guide can’t replace the expertise and experience of instructional designers specializing in online learning, it does offer a much-needed primer on course design, course components, course management, and evaluation—all through the lens of providing equitable access to all types of learners.

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Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change               Artist: Angus Maguire

Many of these recommended strategies will be familiar to readers of this blog—below we’ve excerpted eight of the many recommendations offered by the authors that we thought were particularly useful. All are explored in depth in a step-by-step guide that will prove valuable to experienced online teachers as well as to those who are new to its tools and techniques.

A Few Ideas from the Experts

  • Be explicit that you value diverse ideas and perspectives—from every student.
  • Provide a variety of options for students to engage with each other and the instructor.
  • Consider media-rich options for enhancing the learning experience through a variety of course materials.
  • Make an effort to connect with students both individually and as a group, to establish a sense of belonging and inclusivity.
  • Include opportunities for students to participate in the course in a variety of ways.
  • Be mindful of students’ comfort with and ability to use various technologies. Provide support resources, instructions for what to do if technology fails, and alternative methods of participation and completion whenever appropriate.
  • Ensure that individual and group communications are inclusive and equitable.
  • Include multiple types of assessments in your course to allow for holistic and diverse opportunities to evaluate learning and performance.

As faculty prepare to meet the challenges of the fall semester, the question of equity will be front and center. To make the online classroom successful for every student, faculty will need support from their institutions as well as the appropriate tools and training to reach every student. When a global pandemic threatens to widen an already problematic achievement gap, education matters--now, more than ever.


 Source: O’Keefe, L., Rafferty, J., Gunder, A., Vignare, K. (2020, May 18). Delivering high-quality instruction online in response to COVID-19: Faculty playbook. Every Learner Everywhere.

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