Can you tell me a bit about the work you’ve done that’s informing your approach to online instruction?
My colleagues and I did a study involving about 800 undergraduate students at a large midwestern university. We started with a series of focus groups asking open-ended questions about students’ experiences with technology and especially the challenges that they face in maintaining access to the internet and reliable digital devices. We then used what we learned from those focus groups to develop a detailed survey about college students’ experiences with technology and the role that those experiences play in reinforcing digital inequalities and inequalities in the classroom. We had about 748 students take the full survey.
How does your research suggest students might be impacted by all courses moving online?
Overall, research suggests that many of our students won't have access to the technology that they'll ultimately need to be able to get their work done for classes.
In the research I did with my colleagues, we found that our most vulnerable students—first-generation college students, students with more limited financial resources, and students of color—are less likely to have reliable access to high-functioning laptops and smartphones. While most college students have access to a smartphone or laptop, students from more vulnerable groups are more likely to have older, more problem-prone devices that make it difficult for them to get their work done. We also found that students from more vulnerable groups were more likely to share their laptop or their smartphone with a roommate or a family member, which could make things more difficult during this transition online.
In our research, we also found that students from more vulnerable groups are less likely to have reliable internet access when they're off-campus. When they were off-campus, many of those students relied on their cell phone data—they didn't have access to wifi at home - and they often worried about running out of data before the month was up. That was because, unlike students from more privileged groups, those students were generally the ones responsible for paying their technology-related costs.
Looking at the consequences of those digital inequalities, my colleagues and I found that students from more vulnerable groups experienced more frequent and longer-lasting disruptions in their access to technology. Students who experienced those disruptions, in turn, received lower grades in college and reported higher levels of stress.
While my colleagues and I did our research before the COVID-19 crisis, research done in the last few weeks suggests that these digital divides are continuing to impact students as courses move online. Recently, for example, UITS sent a short email survey to all 100 thousand students at IU across all the different campuses. About 25 thousand took the survey. 9% percent of those who took this survey reported that they don't have reliable access to the internet where they'll be staying for the rest of the semester. That's 9% of the students who had at least enough internet access to take an online survey: the real percentage of students could potentially be even higher. At a school as large as IU, with campuses all over the state, that could easily mean more than 10 thousand students who don't have access to the internet and aren't able to get online to do their coursework.
Unfortunately, my research also suggests that the students who most need technology-related support and accommodations will be most reluctant to ask. That reluctance, in many cases, is justified. Because of how their teachers and professors treated them in the past, many students from vulnerable groups don't trust that professors and universities will be responsive to their needs and support them in the challenges they face. The solution, then, can't be to expect vulnerable students to speak up and ask for help in dealing with the kinds of technology-related struggles or other struggles that they're facing amid this massive societal disruption. Instead, university administrators and individual faculty members need to provide support and accommodations that students can access without having to ask.
What changes are you making to your classes this semester now that they’ve moved online?
I've tried to stay in regular contact with my students, offering them words of reassurance and also pointing them to various resources. I also sent out messages with information about targeted sets of resources that students could access if they were dealing with particular types of challenges. The next thing I tried to do is adjust my expectations for what we'll be able to get done this semester, and what will count as success. This is about changing our mindset as instructors, about focusing on being kind to our students, and even being kind to ourselves in an incredibly difficult time. We have to ditch the idea that students can and should only get A's if they rise above these disruptions and continue to exceed the expectations that we set for them before everything went haywire in our current environment.
If we don't make those kinds of adjustments, we run the risk of grading students on their privilege and not on what they've learned or on what they'll be able to do. That's why one of the things I decided with my course was that no student would end up with a final lower than the grade they had when classes went online. Essentially, that means that all remaining assignments are optional and that if students complete them, those assignments can only raise their grades. I'm also leaving assignments open for a much longer period of time and allowing students to choose from various options (e.g., project vs. exam).
At the same, and despite the current challenges, I do think it's important for instructors to continue to allow students to learn. And I believe instructors should work to make that opportunity as accessible as possible to students. In my classes, for example, I'm offering synchronous instruction online, but I am also posting videos of those discussions for students to watch later, and I am posting full transcripts of the class lectures so that students who don't have the bandwidth for video can still get all the information from class.
What would you like to share with everyone teaching this semester?
Ultimately, the specifics of the way that we adjust our expectations this semester will have to vary from class to class. However, now that our classrooms are essentially empty for the remainder of the semester, we can't expect our students to show up in person. We have to shift both the technologies that we use to teach our students and also the expectations that we set for our students. We have to make sure that those expectations we set reflect a high level of empathy, especially toward those students who are most vulnerable during this incredibly disruptive and challenging time.