Digital inequity during the Covid 19 pandemic
According to a survey of UM students distributed in April 2020, 46% of undergraduates reported their access to internet interfered with their ability to learn, and nearly 75% reported their study environment interfered with their ability to learn. While faculty, staff, and administrators worked throughout the summer to improve teaching and learning conditions for Fall 2020 from the sudden shift to remote classes in the spring semester, the national economic situation has rendered many of our students less able to overcome the digital learning challenges they faced early on during the pandemic.
There are obvious challenges for students such as access to a reliable internet connection and access to a digital device on which they can complete schoolwork. These challenges alone are a huge learning barrier. We’ve heard from students who are sharing devices with roommates and family members, students whose devices are too dated for the necessary software they need for certain classes, and students who are attending class sitting in a car outside a WiFi hotspot miles from their home. But in addition to not having access to technology, we know many of our students are additionally burdened by not having a quiet place to study, anxiety related to ethnic and racial harassment, and grief from the death of a family member to the Covid 19 virus. Some students are taking on more work in the form of childcare of younger siblings also learning at home, and some are taking on more shifts at work to compensate for a parent’s job loss. We have students who are immunocompromised, and many more who live with love ones who are immunocompromised. These students are having to make choices about health first, education second. Even students not impacted by the health, racial, and economic fallout of the pandemic report a decrease of motivation along with an increase in mental exhaustion from being in online meetings for hours each day.
Guiding principles of teaching with equity
Equity begins with shifting the way inequity has often been framed in higher education. Rather than placing the burden of ‘keeping up’ on students, equity asks us to examine how higher education has developed its teaching, policies, funding, and curricula in ways that intentionally disadvantage some students over others. Teaching with equity includes the following guiding principles:
- Recognizing the ways in which systematic inequities disadvantage minoritized people in a range of social institutions or contexts (education, employment, healthcare, the criminal justice system, etc.).
- Reframing outcomes disparities as an indication of institutional underperformance rather than students’ underperformance.
- Not attributing outcomes disparities exclusively to students or perceived deficits in students’ identities, life circumstances, or capabilities.
- Critically reflecting upon one’s role and responsibilities (as a faculty member, student affairs staff, administrator, counselor, institutional researcher, etc.)
Drs. J. Luke Wood and Frank Harris; “Employing Equity Minded & Culturally Affirming Teaching Practices in Virtual Learning Communities” and quoting from Bensimon, E. M., Harris III, F., & Rueda, R. (2007). “The meditational means of enacting equity mindedness among community college practitioners”. Diversity Research, 7(1,2), 14-15.
What we can do to teach equitably
If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito. – Anita Roddick
When a problem is systematic, it may feel futile to try to tackle it in small ways. However, small acts in teaching can make a big difference to student learning. Here are some practical things we can do to promote equity in our teaching.
All students are more likely to do well in your class if they feel welcome, they feel seen, and they feel you support their success.
- Identify your pronouns on your syllabus, in email signature, and in any other media in which your name appears.
- Learn and use students’ names.
- Convey approachability and your desire to see students succeed.
- Share your own academic struggles with your students.
- Confront student-t0-student microaggressions when you hear them or when they are brought to your attention.
All students benefit from a course that is organized, yet flexible; teaching built around the social aspect of learning; and learning that allows them to fail.
- Organize your content into weekly folders or self-contained learning modules.
- Update the grade book often so students can track their progress in your course.
- Include multiple low-stakes practice activities in your lessons.
- Build in opportunities for students to learn from each other.
- Allow students to work ahead.
- Put all important information, such as due dates, in writing and in several locations.
The more we can eliminate barriers to access to course materials, the more likely students are to engage with course materials.
- Choose low-cost or no-cost course materials. When you cannot do this, ask the publisher for scholarship access codes to distribute to students who cannot afford class materials.
- Ensure your course content is accessible to all learners. Building your course according to Universal Design for Learning Principles is a good way to ensure accessibility.
- Make sure students can access your course content on their mobile device and offline as they won’t always have access to reliable internet.
Students are more likely to find your course content relevant when they can see themselves in it.
- Ensure your course content represents the identities of all of your students.
- Don’t limit your content to a singular philosophical or demographic viewpoint.
- Teach how your discipline has been shaped by bias (and is working to overcome it).
- Teach how your discipline has perpetuated bias or harm (and is working to overcome it).
The benefits of teaching with equity
Many disciplines in higher education underrepresent the population at large. By closing opportunity gaps, we invite a more diverse cohort of students into our disciplines.
Teaching with equity supports both critical thinking skills, and skills in cultural competence.
Teaching with equity will not right all of the wrongs in higher education, but if we don’t teach with equity, especially during this time of national and international crisis, we support the status quo of an institution that was originally designed for the benefit of the few over the many.