While digital learning allowed education to continue during the pandemic, it also exposed inequities in access to high-quality learning.
Evidence shows that “some student populations, including first-generation and academically at-risk learners, are especially vulnerable to poorly designed online programs,” according to a New America report on digital learning.
In Washington State, for example, a study examining the performance gap between in-person and online classes found that males, students with lower GPAs, and Black students experienced the greatest declines in academic performance while online.
Now that colleges and universities are emerging from “crisis mode,” they are exploring how to offer equitable, high-quality online education beyond the pandemic.
The report includes five pillars of quality digital learning.
- Implement an organized class structure and clear communication
- Delineate clear and aligned learning objectives
- Provide regular feedback
- Build on supportive technology
- Support student connection and community
Providing structure, guidance, connections
Because online learning requires students to be more self-directed and self-disciplined than in-person classes, an organized course structure is crucial. Clear guidance is especially necessary for students with little online course experience and students with lower levels of academic preparation.
Course content and materials should be “organized, easy to find and clearly labeled,” the report suggests. And instructors should spend time up front explaining to students the basics of the class, such as how to navigate the online course platform, class structure and course policies. This information can be shared live or in a pre-recorded video.
Designing a course with clearly defined learning objectives also is especially important for online courses. Students need to know why they are learning the material, too.
“Chunking course content into smaller sections and breaking down main concepts helps students make meaning of information, retain it better and meet learning objectives,” the report says, and also suggests that courses are designed in ways that validate the diverse perspectives and learning styles of students.
Online courses also make it tougher for students to connect with both other students and their professors. Enabling breakout rooms and scheduling virtual study groups can help build relationships among students. To strengthen the student-instructor relationship, the report suggests increased communication through emails, discussion boards, lectures and office hours.
Improving access to technology
Of course, if the technology isn’t accessible or intuitive, these suggestions won’t mean much. Students need access to the tools and training on how to use the technology. Faculty also need help understanding and adapting to it.
The New America report included policy recommendations for the federal government, starting with the need for policy leaders to support access to technology and quality broadband. The shift to online during the pandemic proved that “reliable broadband is an essential service and that access is unequal between demographic groups across the country,” the report says.
In addition, a federal grant program should be created for colleges providing technology tools to students who need them.
Another federal grant program should be created to support professional development, the report suggests. It would help institutions improve the quality of their online course offerings and would also improve teaching and learning in in-person classes.