Working Toward Equity in Online Education

Editors note: An earlier edition of this article was published with a different title. Our team needed to make some updates to the content. We apologize for any disruption to reading the post.

Online education has a problem and it’s time we admit it. Many of our students, especially some of our most vulnerable students, simply don’t see the value and are not successful in online courses. As online practitioners we know that online education means those classes that are deliberately designed to be offered online. And we understand that those sorts of deliberately designed courses can be extraordinarily effective, especially when purposeful student supports are built into them. But what is often lost on our students, and critics of online education, is the difference between online education, remote education, and blended learning. And as a result, courses that may not have been deliberately designed for online learning and lack those necessary resources ill serve our students.

As one such student, Katie Suriel, explained to The Washington Post, “I just don’t see the benefit of me taking online-only classes right now if I’m paying full tuition and not getting the perks I enjoyed most… I like the structure of in-person classes.” And Katie is clearly not the only student to feel this way.

What do we know about this term?

Since the early spring, The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) has been monitoring a drop in FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) completions. A final analysis of those numbers by NCAN shows that FAFSA completions were down 4 percent overall among high school students but down almost 6 percent among students from Title I eligible high schools. Percentage reports mask the true cost, though, so let me put it another way— 98,924 fewer high school seniors have applied for the financial aid that is critical to their ability to go to college. 98,924 fewer students have likely not embarked on the one activity that has a better chance of lifting them out of poverty. 98,924 students.

a student holds their head while looking at a computer
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

It’s not just a matter of financial aid that is interfering with students’ plans to attend college; for many it’s the modality, specifically online learning… and many of its variations. Some students share Katie Suriel’s sentiments—often designed to serve adult students, online learning lacks the “perks” of the traditional college experience. For others the resources to be successful in an online class—the technology, bandwidth, and quiet space to participate in class and study—are woefully lacking.

Take Paige McConnell for example, another student interviewed by The Washington Post. McConnell lives in rural Tennessee and was enrolled at Roane State Community College. She was the first in her family to go to college but quickly found that online classes would make it almost impossible for her to be successful. Like 37 percentage of rural Americans, McConnell lacks home broadband to access her online classes. She attempted to use her local library’s internet but was told that she couldn’t sit in the building because of pandemic related concerns. She then tried sitting in the local McDonald’s parking lot in hopes of using the restaurant’s Wi-Fi, but that didn’t work as the insecure network kept being blocked by her institution’s servers. McConnell finally just gave up explaining, “But the online classes really threw me for a loop. I knew I couldn’t do it.”

McConnell is far from alone.

Earlier this year the US Census Bureau added pandemic related questions to its Household Pulse Survey. And although the data methodology suggests that some responses may have been double counted, the general pattern is worth examining. 29.4 percent of respondents reported that someone in the household canceled all fall postsecondary plans while another 11.3 percent reported taking fewer courses than planned. Why did almost 30 percent report canceling fall postsecondary plans? It should come as no surprise that changes in income due to the pandemic was the leading cause (69 percent), but 25.4 percent responded that plans were canceled because the format of the courses changed. The survey does not explicitly mention online and blended education. Based on other surveys we can assume that the shift to online and blended learning (and, equally, away from the traditional on-campus experience they were seeking) is a substantial part of the shift students are responding to.

One way to mitigate against this is the use of proven practices. Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic by Digital Promise, Every Learner Everywhere, and Tyton Partners outlined the experiences of students during the pivot to remote learning in the spring, including those practices that made the most difference. The eight practices examined in the study were:

  • Assignments that asked student to be reflective and name what they’ve learned and still need to learn.
  • Breaking up class activities into shorter pieces.
  • Frequent low stakes assessments.
  • Opportunities for students to ask questions and participate in live discussions.
  • Using small “breakout groups” during a live class.
  • Faculty messages to individual students reflecting on their performance and making sure students were able to access course materials.
  • Using real world examples in the course content.
  • Group projects.

Not surprisingly, students who experienced a greater number of these practices were significantly more satisfied with their suddenly remote courses. “Net satisfaction (the proportion of students very or somewhat satisfied) for courses employing 0-2 of the recommended online instructional practices was 43 percent compared to 61 percent for courses using 3-5 of the practices, and 74 percent for courses using 6-8 of the practices.”

Unfortunately, many students experienced courses without these sorts of best practices. A spring 2020 Niche.com survey of over 23,000 college and graduate students showed that the majority of those surveyed found online classes less effective than face-to-face and were unlikely to consider online education in the future based on their current experiences. As digital learning professionals we understand the difference between remote classes and those deliberately designed for online delivery, but many of our students do not. But many of our students may still be experiencing courses that are not explicitly using these best practices.

And that’s a problem.

What does this mean for educational and societal equity?

Things get grimmer when you start looking at which students are foregoing fall postsecondary education plans. They are disproportionately poor or minoritized. An analysis of the Household Pulse Survey data by New America found:

  • 35 percent were from households without a college degree.
  • 35 percent were from households with an income level below $25,000.
  • 43 percent were from households that had used SNAP benefits during the previous week.
  • 34 percent were from households that had received unemployment during the previous week.

Racial disparities undoubtedly exist. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) recently released an analysis of its preliminary fall enrollment data. And although only 22 percent of schools had reported their enrollment data, the trends are unsurprising but troubling. As of September 10th, NSC reported that undergraduate enrollment was down 2.5 percent with community colleges, institutions that enroll a large number of historically at-risk students, suffering the largest enrollment drop—8.8 percent. Enrollment drops were present across racial and ethnic groups as the table below shows.

International students-11%
American Indian and Native Alaskan students-8%
Black students-6%
White students-6%
Latinx students-3.3%

We also know that race plays a role in students’ ability to access the technology necessary to be successful in their classes. Turning again to the research in Suddenly Online, we find that Latinx students experienced more technology challenges, including challenges around internet connectivity (23 percent), than white (12 percent) and Black students (17 percent). Similarly, students from households with annual income under $50,000 were also more likely to often or very often experience problems with interconnectivity (20 percent) opposed to students from households earning $100,000 or more (12 percent).

Pundits are already calling this the Lost Generation, and the educational and economic ramifications of non-enrollment may be catastrophic and push an educational system already struggling for equity over the edge.

“Pundits are already calling this the Lost Generation…”

Considering the existing racial discrepancies in attainment rates not only are these students decreasing their chances of graduation but the racial divide in college completion is likely to grow larger. And if our campuses grow whiter, the lack of diversity will impact all students.

What’s the role of digital learning?

For too many students this term, online learning is inaccessible. The pandemic hasn’t caused the digital divide but it has laid it bare. We know that students have struggled with a multitude of challenges related to digital learning—access to a computer, internet connectivity, a quiet place to study and work. Some of those challenges we can meet and some we cannot.

  • We can’t address the widespread lack of internet connectivity, but we can distribute mobile hot spots and create campus Wi-Fi parking lots.
  • We may not have the funds to provide every student a state-of-the-art laptop, but we can work with faculty and instructional designers to develop mobile first courses that are adapted to smartphone and tablet use.
  • We can’t change students’ housing, but we can create socially distanced spaces on our campuses where students can work, be it an empty classroom or an outdoor table and chair.
  • We can work with community organizations and local school districts to pool digital and physical resources.
  • We can proactively reach out to those students like Suriel and McConnell and work with them to return to college, in whatever form, in the spring.
  • And we can take this as time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in digital learning. We can study the impact of deliberate instructional design. We can determine the impact of hybrid/blended learning on both students and faculty. We can better understand the digital and physical supports that many students need to succeed. We can begin to dig into the rich data coming out of online and hybrid courses to better understand student learning.
Photo by Valentin Antonucci on Pexels.com

We have already done tremendous work over the last six months. Hundreds of thousands of courses were put online. Tens of thousands of laptops, tablets, and mobile hot spots have been distributed to students. Faculty have taken an even more active role in proactively reaching out to students. Student services that once could only be accessed on campus have moved online. This is tremendous work, but it’s unlikely the spring term will be any different than the fall. And we can’t afford to have so many students stay out of our physical and digital classrooms. We have to understand why the Suriels and McConnells believe that online learning is a poor substitute for face-to-face and we have to address those concerns.

America can’t afford a lost generation.

What’s WCET’s response?

WCET’s team comes together every day to do our work because we believe in the power of education to improve lives. We’re committed to work that expands access to high-quality digital learning opportunities to all students, especially minoritized students and other students from historically underserved communities. As a team, WCET is committed to diversity and inclusion and stands with our community against racist actions, incendiary statements, and violence against people of color.

As a part of our commitment to equity we have focused the first seminar in our Annual Meeting Seminar Series on inclusiveness in higher education. You can still join us for: “Inclusiveness in Higher Education: From Notion to Action.” For years, the higher ed community has discussed how to create a culture of inclusiveness. How can we act on those ideas to achieve meaningful change? In addition to a number of speakers and the opportunity to work with your colleagues to create meaningful connections and actions, WCET will also be previewing research on equity practices in online education. Learn more and register.

Our commitment has also led us to review our identity to make sure that our focus and initiatives will truly support our members, the higher education community at large, and, most importantly, higher education students. To that end, we have evaluated and updated (and in some cases created for the first time) our mission and value statements. We will be sharing these statements with our members and on our website in the coming months.

Addressing equity in online education is everyone’s responsibility. WCET is proud to provide the space for those sometimes difficult conversations and amplify the good work and promising practices of our community. Together we can make a difference.


van davis headshot

Van Davis
Policy and Planning Consultant, WCET
vdavis@wiche.edu    @historydoc


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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