Using Digital Tools to Create Equity in Higher Education

Emerging technologies and new digital tools can be key instruments to help create more equality in higher education.

“We tend to think that racial injustice is in the past,” said Jessica Williams, Director of Every Learner Everywhere, “but it is still with us today.” She leads the nonprofit organization in its mission to help colleges and universities use new technology to innovate teaching and learning to better serve Black, Latinx, indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students.

Williams recently spoke at a session called Digital Learning as a Tool for Equity and Racial Justice in Higher Ed at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Accelerate 2021 virtual conference. She argues that the systemic racism embedded in our institutions must be addressed and healed before moving forward.

Results of institutional racism and injustice include:

  • Low graduation rates
  • Non-culturally appropriate curriculum
  • Low expectations from faculty
  • Merit-based financial aid that favors middle class students
  • Education design that assimilates students of color into a world of white privilege
  • Digital tools that are largely created by white and Asian males
  • Lack of research for racially marginalized students on digital tools and learning
  • No professional development for faculty centered on equity and digital implementations

As a result, students of color and other marginalized students struggle on a daily basis. Williams noted that achievement gaps don’t just happen. They are the expected outcome to the resources and activities that marginalized students have experienced and have access to.

“While deficit thinking often causes us to conclude that the academic struggles of racially minoritized and poverty-affected student are attributable to innate scholastic deficiencies, the reality is that this country and its systems are inherently anti-poor and anti-BIPOC because they were founded and predicated upon a racialized, capitalistic values system that assigns more value to lives within the dominant culture than the lives of marginalized populations.”

Opportunities for Change

In order to change, institutions need to face the reality that’s been created for BIPOC, non-English speakers, and poverty-challenged students. William’s suggestions for institutional change include:

  • Faculty and instructional designers need to become aware of how racist legacies live on in our teaching.
  • Move from a culture that blames students for disparities we see to one that brings culturally relevant pedagogy to the mix.
  • Recognize that faculty have been socialized to reproduce the culture of their disciplines. Those who want to deal with racism, will have to “unlearn” the failures of their institutions.

Williams introduced the concept of “Equity-Mindedness.” The term refers to the practice of calling attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes. Those who advocate for it are willing to become race conscious and take personal and institutional responsibility to reassess their practices in light of historical racism. Making assumptions lets our bias go unchecked Institutions need to check in with their students.

So how does digital learning fit into this construct?

Recent research uncovered that 80 percent of marginalized students did not like the online learning experience and felt overwhelmed during Covid. Students felt their faculty struggled with technology and they wanted more than lectures and videos. They wanted Q&A opportunities and simulations, for example.

Digital courseware has the ability to improve the learning experience for marginalized students. There are benefits for both students and faculty. The fact that technology is not the answer in and of itself is something that Williams stressed in discussing our assumptions about digital literacy.

“Equity remains a critical but confusing concept for higher education,” said Williams. “How we define equity determines what the equity solution will be.” In designing strategies to combat embedded racism, Williams cautions that technology alone cannot solve a systemic societal problem. It can treat the symptoms but not the cause. Her recommendations are:

  • Courses need to incorporate evidence-based solutions
  • Digital learning can scale to other solutions that meet the needs of all learners.
  • Be clear about engagement with digital tools—what support is available, make instructional videos to introduce new tools
  • Establish a social presence—an important part of the learning experience. It promotes feelings of inclusion.
  • Be active and transparent. Students of color are reluctant to ask for help. You can’t assume they will reach out to you.

For more articles from OLC’s Accelerate 2021 event see:

Forge Rigor, Educators Need to Foster Trust and Flexibility

The Future of Education, Work is Changed Forever Due to Covid