Using Technology to Help First-Gen Students

Colleges should put digital tools at the center of their programs for ensuring academic success of students who are first in their families to go to college, write Ana M. Martinez Aleman, Heather Rowan-Kenyon and Mandy Savitz-Romer.

October 10, 2018
 

As faculty members, we announce our expectations for student work in these first few days of the new academic year. Many of our students are acquainted with our expectations. Many are familiar with the demands and assumptions we have about their writing and their analytical know-how. Many have the foundational academic literacy that will make their transition to the college classroom a relatively straightforward one.

But for some of our students, in particular for many of our first-generation college students, our academic requirements are unfamiliar and unheard-of. Our academic norms may be incongruous with their high school experiences, and thus incomprehensible. As a result, many of our first-gen students are apprehensive about their ability to perform well in class and are distressed, believing that they are already “behind” other students in the class.

As researchers have pointed out, many first-gen college students are more likely than their continuing-generation college peers to withdraw from college, effectively canceling the many lifelong economic and social benefits that come with attaining a college degree. As faculty, we should be aware of the particular challenges that many first-gen students face in our classrooms and employ pedagogical tools that will provide our first-gen students with the opportunities to successfully engage in our classrooms.

Yet despite college students’ pervasive use of technology and our institutions’ investment in technology, faculty rarely employ technology as a way to address gaps in first-gen students’ college readiness. For many first-gen college students, especially those from low-income, underserved high schools, our research tells us that technology can have a positive impact on their transition to the college classroom. Using mobile devices and Web 2.0 technologies to support first-gen student learning and academic engagement can improve their postsecondary success and completion.

Based on our research, we believe colleges and universities need to increase their use of technology to support learning and academic engagement for first-gen students. In our research with first-gen students transitioning from high school to college, we have seen firsthand how they used technology as a way to acquire the sound and reliable information and knowledge (often tacit knowledge) they need to navigate the demands of the college classroom and access the academic knowledge necessary to thrive in our courses.

This knowledge and information, or “academic capital,” that first gens must access and use in order to successfully navigate the college experience can be acquired through online applications that augment their often insufficient high school preparation in the principles of academic writing (mechanics: sentence structure, grammar, etc.), discipline-specific vocabulary and conceptualizations, and analytical skills.

In some cases, students have independently begun to use technology to fill in gaps in their understanding. Likewise, some colleges and universities have begun to use technology in these ways, however, we believe faculty can be much more purposeful and intentional about capitalizing on these tools. Faculty and higher education administrators could draw on the two promising strategies we observed in our research to enhance their current college success efforts.

1. Use Technology and Apps to Augment Learning

While we recognize the value of a no-tech policy in a course, we encourage faculty to examine how such a policy can limit access to course content and learning. As is the case for students whose disability accommodation requires the use of technology in class, certain technologies and applications enable first-gen students to access vocabulary, foundational principles not covered in high school instruction and other information necessary to advance their learning in the class.

In our study, apps preloaded onto institution-provided iPads served as scaffolding for first gens’ academic transition by providing information and instruction on note taking, time management, mind mapping, idea generation and strategies for learning complex information. In introductory college English writing and literature courses, instructors can use literary analysis apps to support learning through guided visualization.

Two successful examples in our book include a faculty member who used the Adobe Reader app and projected student work in order to allow students to annotate drafts of essays in real time with input from peers and the faculty. In another course, the faculty required students to create Facebook profiles for characters in The Merchant of Venice as a tool to make the text more accessible and understandable, and for students to develop their analytical skills. In math and science courses, easy access to online resources like Khan Academy tutorials enabled first-gen students to make progress in content not well covered by their high schools.

In our study, mobile phones and iPads were deployed to access dictionary apps to understand vocabulary used by faculty. Students shared that they regularly used the dictionary app on their iPads during class to obtain quick definitions of terms they were not familiar with in order to follow the lecture and understand the lesson. Students shared that they would not have been comfortable raising their hands to ask what the particular words meant, for fear of being seen as unintelligent or uneducated by their peers and faculty. Whether discipline-specific vocabulary or terminology common in academic language, students used technology to access meaning in order to be fully engaged in learning.

2. Encourage Social Media Connections to Promote Supportive Relationships

While many college orientation programs promote “letting go” during family orientation programs to avoid helicopter parenting, we observed that supportive home-based relationships that buoyed first-gen students’ academic confidence and efficacy were primarily maintained through technology. Simpler, more frequent and no-cost communication through social media, FaceTime and messaging apps played an important role in helping first-gen students maintain their ties to family and home support networks that research has shown to be critical for first-gen student success.

While faculty may encourage students to seize the opportunity to break away from family and home networks, we recommend that faculty keep in mind the wide diversity in students and their families who play a key role in helping first-gen students persevere in the classroom. Institutionally, administrators might consider expanding the scope of information typically shared with family members to include information about the academic experience and strategies to support their child during high-stress times. Doing so will capitalize on the support role families are likely to play.

Beyond these trusted adults in their lives, first-gen students are also able to use social media to build on supportive relationships with older first-gen peers and peer mentors, who like them, had recent college transition challenges. In our research, these initially in-person relationships continued to develop through social media and served as key sources of campus knowledge. In this way, faculty who use undergraduate teaching assistants might encourage them to use social media to build stronger relationships between students and teaching staff and to promote engagement.

During the four years that our first-gen students used mobile devices and applications to access valuable information and knowledge, it was clear that Web 2.0 technology positively impacted their progress through academic transitions that can often derail first-generation college students. We recommend that colleges and universities leverage technology for first-generation college students’ academic transition.

Technology should be a centerpiece in the design and implementation of first-gen academic programs. Institutions should utilize the power of social media, smartphones, multimedia applications and messaging to better equip first-generation college students to succeed in their academic transition, engagement and persistence in college.

Bio

Ana M. Martinez Aleman, Heather Rowan-Kenyon and Mandy Savitz-Romer are authors of Technology and Engagement: Making Technology Work for First-Generation College Students. Martinez-Aleman and Rowan-Kenyon are on the faculty at Boston College's Lynch School of Education. Savitz-Romer is faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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