COVID Created Better Choices and Accessibility for All Students

The COVID-19 pandemic has had tremendous impacts on higher education. Impacts such as financial challenges, closures, learning disruptions, and operational considerations. These impacts have resulted in several changes in higher education that are here to stay, many of which are referred to as the “New COVID-normal.” And although many of COVID's impacts on higher education have been challenging, some impacts result in better choices and accessibility for students.

During my recent presentation at the WPI 2022 HBCU Forum, I shared that two of the long-term implications for higher education as a result of the pandemic are an increase of adult learners in student demographics and the increased demand for affordable, high-quality online programs. Attitudes towards online learning are changing, and as this happens student demographics are changing as well. While we still have the traditional demographic of students, adult learners are enrolling in online programs at increased rates to re-skill and up-skill for the evolving workforce. And these changes are not going away.

At the onset of the pandemic, many institutions had to pivot quickly to online learning. Unfortunately, many institutions were not prepared for this sudden shift in modality. As a result, not only did institutions feel negative impacts, but the students did as well. Unfortunately, many of these students are underserved populations, who do not have the same equitable access to resources or services as their peers.  

Historically, underserved students most commonly include first-generation students, low-income students, and those who identify as black and Latinx. Even before the pandemic, these students have continued to enroll and progress at lower rates. As we embrace the changes that have occurred in higher education and embrace the new modalities of learning, we embrace our underserved students and meet their needs. This means, as an industry, we’ve learned the importance of being flexible and positioning ourselves to meet every student where they are.

With this in mind, universities must look at how to incorporate diversity into the classroom, even online. Campuses are overflowing with students from various backgrounds. Their cultures, experiences, and even their way of thinking are different. Because of this, universities must be intentional about incorporating diversity into the classroom. Doing so ensures that a safe space has been created for learning to occur, for enriching the educational experience, for encouraging critical thinking, and for helping students learn to communicate effectively with people from various backgrounds.

This is especially important to keep in mind as colleges and universities convert traditional courses into online courses. Diversity can be immediately incorporated in the following ways:

  • Include a diversity statement on your online syllabus. This sets the tone of your course and shows that you value and respect differences.
  • Introduce diverse perspectives. This allows students to learn from each other and consider new ideas and perspectives, and this additional effort significantly enhances the online experience.
  • Use a variety of teaching strategies. If you always lecture (even online), consider adding videos and various interactive components to your course to bring different perspectives into the learning space.
  • Revise course materials to reflect diversity in respective industries. This allows students to see success as an option when they see someone who looks like themselves.
  • Include diverse examples, images, and names throughout the course. 
  • Allow students to demonstrate their learning in various ways, such as written, verbal, or visual responses.

Author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said, “In diversity, there is beauty and strength”. This means that there is beauty in the desire to equally include all students in the educational experience. And there is strength in doing so in a way that values and promotes the differences amongst us.

As universities look at how to move forward and remain stable in this new COVID-normal of higher education, first accept that things may not fully return to normal. This means that everyone must make an intentional effort to realign focus and ensure that as the institutional approach continually evolves, no one should ever lose sight of who is most important – the students.  

The pandemic has taught us that we must be able to quickly adapt and remain flexible to the ever-changing needs in higher education and the ever-changing needs of our students. To make sure that you can quickly adapt your programs, start by ensuring that courses can easily be converted to an online modality. This is online equivalency, which means that courses are available online while on-ground sessions are still taking place so that students do not fall behind if they are unable to physically attend class. By doing this, equitable access to education is expanded, barriers are eliminated, and universities can continue to deliver the promise of top-quality, workforce-relevant education to every student.

Tekoya Boykins, Ed.D, is Assistant Director, Academic Services & Products at Academic Partnerships