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One Year After the Shutdown: Education Lessons from COVID-19

A year ago, K-12 classrooms and college campuses across the country shuttered; many still remain closed. As the panic of the pandemic spread, students and teachers stayed home and shifted to “emergency” mode – delivering curriculum in whatever ways they could. This was not online learning; this was emergency remote teaching.

For many educators, the thought was: We have to do what we can to get by. But for too many students, the result of this emergency instruction has been a widening equity gap that risks the long-term success of our most vulnerable students – whether they’re in first grade or their first year of college.

Dr. Jessica Rowland WilliamsDr. Jessica Rowland Williams

As we evaluate the past year’s lessons to inform future decisions about technology as a teaching tool, we must ask ourselves complex but essential questions about the humane use of technology. How can we deliver technology equitably so that a single working mother in rural Georgia has the same experience and chance for success as a traditional first-year college student living in an urban center? How can we ensure remote learning works equitably for a second-grader in an upper-class suburb and a second-grader in a low-income home with unstable internet access – and little to no parental support?

This challenge of digital inequity is not new. But the pandemic presents an opportunity to design a new model of remote instruction with equity at the forefront.

Through multiple surveys and focus groups of college students and faculty in the past year, we have found:

  • Postsecondary educators need to be trained in new technologies while reevaluating curricula that work well in a classroom but do not translate across a Zoom call. Faculty want more resources and training to help them perform their best in this new online world. In Time for Class Part 3, researchers report that only 54% of faculty rate the professional development at their institutions as sufficient.
  • Students want more thoughtful, interactive, and engaging delivery of quality online curriculum. They want solutions offered to logistical challenges like internet access and the need for face time with instructors. Student Speak, a study of diverse college students enrolled during the pandemic, reports that the lack of access to the internet is a very present barrier to rural students and low socio­economically situated students. This barrier diminishes students’ ability to participate in extra teamwork or additional Q&A sessions with instructors. They also found that students don’t want to feel like they are teaching themselves, so faculty engagement is critical.

A year into the pandemic, we now know just how quickly our most vulnerable populations of students – first-generation college students, low-income K-12 and postsecondary students, students of color, and rural students – can become isolated and disconnected. But we also see more profound inequities that WiFi access alone won’t fix.

It is important to note that these groups of students are the “New Majority.” They make up the largest populations heading to our college campuses. Yet, our institutions still build policies and practices around the “ideal” – a full-time student who lives on or near campus and is 18 years old, with little burdens, financial or otherwise.

How can we plan, design and implement better remote learning? How can we optimize and scale the best and most equitable remote learning experiences for our students? At Every Learner Everywhere, we have been asking these questions since our inception, but today we are addressing them with greater urgency because we know that the education community’s response to this crisis is pivotal.  Our focus remains on postsecondary education, yet so many of the challenges and potential solutions apply to K-12.

Here is where we can all start immediately:

  • We need to stop placing the burden solely on students to identify and solve resource needs. Teachers and faculty need to identify and help them access needed resources.
  • Instructor training is critical. Systems, institutions and education leaders must invest in professional development to build cultural competency. Bias still exists even in online settings. A study released by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University found that the potential for bias appears to be strong in online courses. Notably, instructors were 94 percent more likely to respond to discussion forum posts by white male students than other students.
  • Budgets need to be adjusted to focus on virtual instruction demands and the students’ needs on the other side of the screen. The bulk of higher education enrollment growth (and funding) is now coming from low-income students and students of color. If we are not serving these students well and investing in their success, we are walking into another kind of crisis.
  • In providing training for instructors and faculty, we need to focus on practice and policy. There are systemic issues that impact equity, from tenure reward systems to college admission. These are the elephants in the room that must be addressed.

Dr. Jessica Rowland Williams is the director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network that helps institutions of higher education across the United States implement innovative teaching and learning practices with a focus on increasing the success for underserved students. You can follow her on Twitter @DrJessWilliams.

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