Bringing equity to online learning

The online student orientation at Blinn College has instructed more than 40,000 students to navigate their online courses effectively. (Photo: Blinn College)

In teaching online and hybrid classes for nearly a dozen years, Blinn College English professor Becky Almany spotted a curious trend.

It wasn’t the content that often tripped up students in her courses. It was the technology.

“I noticed that my students were really struggling with the learning management system,” she says. “I was spending an inordinate amount of my time trying to teach them how to use it.”

This excerpt comes from the current issue of the American Association of Community Colleges‘ bimonthly Community College Journal, sharing news and promising practices in the two-year college sector since 1930.

Many of the students taking Almany’s classes were older adults working full-time jobs and looking for a more flexible option to continue their education.

“They often felt thrown into a course, and many didn’t have the technological skills to be successful,” she observes. “They would stare at the course home page and think: Where do I begin? What do I do? How do I get started?”

Almany realized her students would benefit from some kind of formal orientation before diving into online learning. So, she set about creating such a program.

Spearheaded by Almany, the online student orientation at Blinn College in Texas has trained more than 40,000 students to navigate their online courses effectively. As a result, student success rates at the college have climbed — especially for economically disadvantaged students.

New technology, new challenges

The pandemic has forever altered the higher-education landscape, and many students now expect online or hybrid learning options. Yet, delivering engaging and high-quality online instruction can be challenging.

As community colleges create or enhance their online learning programs, campus leaders must find ways to make these experiences equitable for all students, so that everyone has a fair chance at success.

Colleges are using a wide array of innovative strategies to do this. These methods include designing online courses with inclusion in mind, providing a consistent experience for online students, and front-loading the skills required to excel in an online environment.

Reducing barriers

Like nearly all institutions, Lone Star College (LSC) pivoted to online instruction as the pandemic intensified in spring 2020. But even as campuses reopened to students that fall, it was clear to Chancellor Stephen Head that this community college system in southeast Texas would need to provide a fully online option for students moving forward.

Prior to the pandemic, LSC had some 30-plus individual online programs operating across its seven campuses. The college system also had a division supporting teaching with technology, called LSC-Online, consisting of instructional designers and technologists. Head and other college leaders decided to turn LSCOnline into an eighth campus delivering online instruction systemwide.

“There was a growing demand for online learning after the pandemic,” says Seelpa Keshvala, executive vice chancellor and CEO of LSC-Online. “It was important for us to make sure we met that demand, so that we could serve our students in the best way possible.”

LSC-Online launched as a formal online-learning program in fall 2022 with more than 3,600 students and 40 faculty members drawn from the system’s other campuses. In recruiting faculty volunteers, Head did something quite innovative: he made it a no-risk venture by guaranteeing instructors’ positions at their home campuses if they decided that teaching online full-time wasn’t for them.

Equity and inclusion were key priorities from the program’s start.

“Faculty didn’t come to us because they loved teaching online,” says Laura McMillion, senior associate vice chancellor of LSC-Online. “They came to us because they saw it as an avenue for providing access to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. They were also very aware that nationwide, achievement gaps are more prevalent in online classes than in face-to-face classes — and they saw that as a challenge they wanted to take on.”

LSC-Online faculty and staff have regular meetings to identify and eliminate barriers to success.

“We have conversations about who our students are and what kinds of support they need,” says McMillion. “That means we have to get to know our students.”

Easier to navigate

One way LSC-Online addresses student equity is by simplifying the navigation of online courses.

“As you can imagine, the courses all look different,” Keshvala says. “Even though we’re all using the same LMS platform, how instructors decide to put their course into the system can look a little different. We heard anecdotally from students that it was hard to navigate these online courses as a result.” LSC-Online has brought some consistency to students’ online-learning experience, making it easier for them to find their way around.

In addition, many faculty have chosen to use open educational resources instead of textbooks in their online courses. “That’s a huge advantage to students, because sometimes those books can cost more than tuition itself,” McMillion says.

LSC-Online instructors are heavily involved in planning and decision-making. For instance, they identified two leadership positions they wanted to create on the faculty: a diversity, equity and inclusion champion and a student success data champion. Collectively, LSC-Online faculty also decided they wanted to achieve the Applying Quality Matters Rubric certification; a QM-designed course meets high standards for rigorous yet engaging online learning.

Having faculty assume this kind of leadership is “every administrator’s dream,” Keshvala says.

After a highly successful first semester, enrollment in LSC-Online jumped to nearly 4,300 students for spring 2023. What’s more, nearly all faculty have decided to remain with the program full-time.

“Thanks to our chancellor, we had an opportunity to approach this almost like a startup,” McMillion says. “If you get the right people in the room and give them no hindrances, you’ll see some really significant conversations take off.”

Read the full article in CC Journal.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
Dennis Pierce is an education writer based in Boston.
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