Equity and Outcomes in Digital Learning

by: Kristen Fox | Blog |Aug 17th, 2021

Over the past year, the pandemic has shone a light on and exacerbated pre-existing structural challenges that persist and prevent access and equity in higher education. The criticality of collaboration across diverse stakeholders – institutions, companies, investors, philanthropy, and policy-makers – to address these issues has been part of what drove our development of the Center for Higher Education at Tyton Partners. This theme of partnership was a recurring one in our conversations and in panels and events at ASU+GSV as well.

As we approach the annual start of the fall term, we are focused on teaching and learning and the role digital learning can play in creating more equitable institutional outcomes. Our annual report on digital learning and courseware adoption, Time for Class, excerpted below, is based on the input of over 1,000 administrators and 3,000 instructors at over 1,600 unique postsecondary institutions. Below we highlight seven lessons learned from the last 18 months in hybrid, online, and highly flexible learning formats that point the way toward more equitable learning outcomes in the future.

Digital Learning & Equity

Digital Learning Infrastructure is Core to Teaching and Learning Infrastructure

Grounded in part in their experience during the pandemic, 3/4 of institutional leaders report they are investing in digital transformation post-COVID and will increase the use of digital pedagogy in introductory-level courses. Digital learning is now a critical element of institutional infrastructure and we expect to see continued institutional investment and partnership with capacity building organizations (including OPMs, instructional design firms, course sharing enablers, and enterprise inclusive access investments) in this category.

Demand for Digital Course Materials is Expected to Remain High

Higher education instructors worked to incorporate digital pedagogy into their courses at an unprecedented scale in terms of its impact on students, instructors, institutions, and digital learning providers. Over the course of the 20/21 academic year, 72% of instructors integrated new digital tools into their teaching (notably courseware, instructional tools focused on engagement, assessment, community, analytics) into their work. Not only is this reflected in the learning experience, but in the expansion of higher education market share from notable digital first players like Top Hat, OpenStax, McGraw Hill and Cengage.

Current Approaches are not Enabling Students of Color to Persist

Black, indigenous and LatinX students are not only less likely to attend a postsecondary institution (2 or 4-year), but also less likely to persist and graduate. Whereas 66% of white students graduate in 6 years or less from a 4-year institution, only 42% of Black students do. Gateway courses – the courses that enable students to advance further into the curriculum and enter into majors that are gateways to high paying careers – like algebra, chemistry, biology – are often gate keepers. A 2018 Gardner Institute study found that DFWI rates in these critical courses were in some cases as much as 21% higher for Black students, meaning that almost a quarter of the Black student population was not completing those courses and progressing into the next.

Digital Learning Can Enable More Equitable Teaching

The pandemic helped to shine a light on the positive impacts of digital learning that can be infused throughout the curriculum, and many faculty discovered strategies that better enabled poverty-affected and minoritized students to participate and be successful. These practices include:

  • Use of asynchronous digital materials to remove boundaries to student participation
  • Increased modularization of content to enable the adjustment of learning paths based on learning outcomes
  • More frequent and formative assessment giving instructors better insight into concepts that students are struggling with and the data to engage in proactive outreach to support and intervene
  • Use of digital tools for engagement and collaboration that involves students actively in learning and reflection
  • Analytics for proactive outreach and support, critical for students from underserved populations who are often less accustomed to engaging in help-seeking behaviors

Partnership between Institutions, Instructors, and the Vendor Community is Critical to Increase the Impact and Use of High-Quality Digital Pedagogies and Tools

As a field, we must continue to explore, interrogate, and expand the use of approaches to instruction in gateway and introductory courses that show promise in reducing outcome gaps and better serve poverty-affected students and students of color. Both instructors and suppliers have a vested interest in collaborating in this work. When instructors have access to quality, affordable materials that lead to better outcomes, they and their students win, and when publishers have input to create better products, they win. Suppliers should prioritize inviting diverse faculty, instructional designers, and students to participate in product design and development. 

Inclusive Access Continues to Increase as Purchasing Channel

Inclusive access—a direct purchase program in which publishers, distributors, and/or campus bookstores provide digital access to course materials on a subscription basis—has become an increasingly popular purchasing model for faculty and institutions: 20% of introductory faculty report an inclusive access agreement at their institution. Two-year institutions are employing inclusive access agreements at the highest rates – as they focus on affordability and access for students. Ivy Tech Community College, has moved to an inclusive tuition model, whereby the cost of course materials are included in tuition and no additional costs are incurred by students, with the goal of ensuring equitable and timely access to materials.

Instructors can Select High-Quality, Affordable Tools

CourseGateway (www.coursegateway.org), is a new resource designed to support instructors and institutional leaders in making informed decisions about digital courseware and tools that can support quality teaching and learning. The tool enables search by discipline, price, and features and evaluates a growing number of courseware and instructional tools based on their affordability, equitable design, and demonstrated efficacy. This tool can support informed decision-making.

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