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A new study says more research and research funding are needed to help determine digital practices that best help students of color.

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When researchers set out to review which digital learning practices most benefit students who identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latinx, Latino or Latina, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Indigenous American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander, they quickly ran into a problem -- there wasn’t much research to review.

“I was shocked I couldn’t find anything at first,” said Margaret Baker, a research assistant at the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements, who spent weeks searching for relevant studies. “It blew me away -- why is there not more research on underrepresented students?”

After weeks of searching, Baker and her colleagues at the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements -- a nonprofit known as DETA that was commissioned to produce a research review for the WICHE Cooperative on Educational Technologies -- identified a dozen research papers that met the criteria to include in a research review. Starting with the major education journals, then smaller journals, Baker gradually turned to more obscure discipline-specific sources.

“It was quite a process,” Baker said.

One study, published in a science journal, proved to be an excellent example of the kind of research the group expected to find, said Tanya Joosten, director of DETA. But it’s likely very few people outside the discipline ever read it, she said.

“It was horrifying that we couldn’t find more,” Joosten said. “We just barely found a dozen journals, and two of those articles were articles that we had written. We were looking for interventions or changes in practice that influenced student outcomes, and we really couldn’t find much at all.”

A joint DETA and WCET report, published yesterday, highlights key findings from that small selection of peer-reviewed research. Based on available research, the report presents recommendations for administrators, staff and instructors. It also includes a background discussion about race, ethnicity and student success. The findings of the report will be discussed in a webinar for WCET members on May 20.

The background section of the report will be particularly important for readers to review in order to understand the context that propelled the report and its findings, said Lindsey Harness, a co-author of the report and assistant professor of communication and technology at Alverno College, a liberal arts college in Wisconsin that is also a Hispanic-serving institution.

The report will be particularly meaningful to instructors who teach a majority of learners who identify racially or ethnically as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latinx, Latino or Latina, Native or Indigenous American, including American Indian, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander, Harness said. But she said that “every institution should be committed to creating equitable spaces of education for all learners, not just those who are considered their primary student population.”

For administrators and staff, the report recommends investigating institutional structures that might be impeding the success rates of all students before investing in more student support services -- which is often the go-to solution. For faculty and instructors, the report recommends considering a more “culturally inclusive curriculum when possible” and also discusses benefits of blended learning, which combines face-to-face instruction with the use of online resources.

Joosten is a big proponent of blended learning, as it allows students to process information in their own time and at their own pace.

The COVID-19 pandemic made the digital divide between different students difficult to ignore, particularly when students were displaced from institutional student housing and a good internet connection, the report said. It recommended that students have access to technology and broadband both on campus and in their homes.

Research exists that looks at the success of students generally with different teaching approaches and tools. But it would be highly beneficial for the research to focus on students who already face the greatest barriers to success, Joosten said.

“While we did have some strong findings of strategies that work well for these underrepresented groups, this whole process really highlighted that we need to focus in on these groups in the future,” Baker said. “I was shocked there wasn’t more research available.”

Part of the reason there hasn’t been more research is a lack of funding, Joosten said. She said that DETA has struggled to secure funding to carry out research focused on educational technology and learning outcomes for racially minoritized students in the past, often losing out to projects that tackled trendier research areas. Now she is hopeful that more research centered on equity and inclusion may be funded, but she isn’t sure how long the wave of interest will last.

“Thank God people are paying attention to our Black and brown family and friends now, and hopefully we can continue on that effort,” Joosten said.

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