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Report: Faculty Getting More Comfortable With Digital Tools. They’re Still Worried About Equity

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, faculty are increasingly becoming comfortable with new digital tools in ways that could have lasting impacts on higher education. But even as they embrace online teaching, instructors are worried about equity gaps for their students, according to a study by the nonprofit Every Learner Everywhere and the education consulting firm Tyton Partners.

Faculty are “warming up to digital and online instruction in ways that they haven’t previously,” said Dr. Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere. “We’re much further ahead in terms of how faculty are thinking about integrating technology in the classroom than we would have been under normal circumstances. I think, however, there is still a great deal of skepticism. There’s still work to be done.”Student 849821 1280

The report is the second in a series of faculty surveys on their attitudes toward and adoption of new technology during the pandemic; the first was conducted in May and the second in August. About 3,641 faculty who are teaching this fall from 1,532 higher education institutions nationwide participated. At this point, over 90% of professors are teaching at least one online or hybrid course, and 60% are using new technology in their classes. From May to August, faculty who felt confident that online learning could be effective jumped from 39% to 49%. About 72% of instructors felt prepared to teach a high-quality course in the fall.

At the same time, two-thirds of faculty were concerned about equity gaps for their students.

“We hear directly from faculty that they are and have been incredibly concerned about the ability of students to be able to have reliable Wi-Fi access, to be able to access a computer or an appropriate device regularly as well as quiet space and ability to focus depending on what their living situation is,” said Kristen Fox, director of Tyton Partners.

Those concerns differ somewhat by institution, she added. At two-year colleges, surveys found faculty particularly worried about students’ basic needs, like whether students “could pay their bills.” At four-year institutions, student mental health was of particular concern.

Nonetheless, more community college professors felt confident that their schools were creating an “ideal digital learning environment” for their students – about 57% of instructors versus 45% at four-year institutions.

That’s a “positive surprise,” said Fox, given community colleges are traditionally working with fewer resources. “Faculty feel they’re being equipped for success there.”

At the same time, a higher percentage of faculty reported dropping enrollment at community colleges compared to four-year institutions, a finding consistent with National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data which shows a 22.7% drop in first-time community college students. That worries her, given the outsized role community colleges play in serving underrepresented students.

“That is and should be concerning, given two-year institutions are such an open enrollment access point for students who are not being served in other places,” she said. “Exactly the pathway that you want to be the short-form entry point to a career is where we’re seeing the biggest enrollment drops.”

The report also put a special focus on faculty of introductory, or gateway, courses. About 66% of these instructors worry underrepresented students may fall behind. In line with those concerns, about 83% reported creating clear expectations and routines for their classes, and 66% are conducting personal outreach to students. The third and final report will focus on this faculty population because of the role they play in retention for underrepresented students.

“We know that gateway courses are just that – they are gateways to education,” Rowland Williams said. “And how students perform in those courses really determines whether or not they’ll graduate and how well they’ll do throughout their entire matriculation. This group of faculty is really pivotal in creating a strong foundation for students as they enter into higher education.”

While the stakes of faculty adopting technology – and their fears about it – are high, researchers also found reason for optimism. They saw faculty using technology in new ways that could outlast the pandemic.

For example, faculty are using new online engagement tools to draw out students who didn’t used to talk in class, Fox noted. They’re doing more assessments to check in with students and figuring out how to dole out content in more optimal, bite-sized pieces.

From Rowland Williams’ perspective, this is an opportunity for faculty to turn their worries about equity into concrete pedagogical changes using their new digital tools.

“Sometimes we get into these conversations around online versus face to face, and which one is better,” she said. “I think that’s just the wrong question to ask. Because what we’re hearing is students actually want flexibility. They want choices about what learning environment is best suited for their own individual needs. And so I think what we need to focus on is how we can build quality into all learning environments … I’m hopeful that that’s the direction we move in in the future.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected]

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