Who Are the Students Struggling With Online Learning?

A new survey sheds light on the current digital divide in higher education -- and what faculty can do about it in their classrooms, writes Nicole Barbaro.

September 29, 2021
 
 
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I’ll be honest with you: I don’t often use a lot of tech in my courses.

Of course, I use standard education technology, such as learning management systems, audiovisual tech aids and some basic design software to spice up my content -- staples of the 21st-century professor. But I don’t often seek out the latest apps, the newest tech or the most innovative tools, and I worry about equitable access to them for my students.

I am always fashionably late to the ed-tech party. And when I do eventually arrive, I often struggle to get the most out of the latest technologies. Although I know ed tech is useful, it can be difficult to learn to use it.

And I am not alone. Students have also floundered, perhaps just as much as professors, when trying to use of all the new educational technology that became the new normal of online learning during the COVID pandemic. In fact, a new report I led from the College Innovation Network finds 20 percent of students reported they struggled to learn how to use ed tech in their courses this past year, and 33 percent said keeping up with how to use new technology has been hard.

The published report, “The New Digital Divide: How EdTech Self-Efficacy is Shaping the Online Student Learning Experience in Higher Ed,” shares results from nearly 700 students across four different higher education institutions, including a primarily online university, a public university, a private university and a community college. The main message from this report is that students’ confidence in their ability to learn and adapt to new technology in the classroom -- or “edtech self-efficacy,” as coined in the report -- is an important correlate of nearly all aspects of students’ learning experiences that we asked about in the survey. As one student reported, “The programs for some classes were very difficult to navigate. I would’ve really preferred the chance to learn how to use the program face-to-face. Emailing and then waiting up to 48 hours [for a response] could really put a strain on my homework schedule.”

And although many students found ed tech easy enough to navigate, some noticed their peers struggling throughout the year. “Although using such technology was easy for me, that same ease did not extend to every student,” another student shared.

Most conversations on ed tech over the course of the last year have centered on issues of the access to it that students need to participate in their courses. And while access remains an ongoing issue in higher education, as the CIN data also show, the take-home of the report is that equity is more than just access. Students’ variable experiences with technology and their ability to fully use it to get the most out of their learning matters, as well.

In the report, we looked at students’ reports of their ed-tech self-efficacy and how that related to other aspects of their online learning experiences. We found that ed-tech self-efficacy was the most important correlate of all other facets of their learning during the pandemic. Students who reported greater ed-tech self-efficacy were also significantly more likely to say that ed tech enhanced their learning experiences throughout the year, that they learned effectively online, and that they felt prepared for this upcoming academic year.

Meanwhile, students who reported struggling with how to use ed tech in their online courses were also significantly more likely to comment that using it felt invasive and that they would consider not enrolling this year if their courses were fully online. Those students also were much less likely to report that ed tech improved their learning across the academic year.

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Our survey highlights that the implicit assumption in the ed-tech and higher education spaces that students today are “digital natives” -- and that introducing new tech is a nonissue for students -- is flawed. While that assumption may be true for many students, continuing to operate under it could result in us leaving about a quarter of all our students behind.

A lot goes into faculty course preparations, and you have almost too many aspects to consider when designing an inclusive learning community in your classroom. Once you choose the right ed tech for your course, what can you do to ensure students are getting the most out of their experiences?

  • Acknowledge the dual learning of not only content but also new ed tech. It’s important to realize that the introduction of new technology results in a dual learning experience for students. Learning how to use that technology will certainly be useful to students in other courses and their future careers. But you should design your classes to incorporate proper instruction of new technologies for students and ensure they all have the knowledge they need to fully participate and succeed in the course.
  • Ask students about their prior experiences with ed tech the first day of class. On day one of my course, I always give a “get to know you” survey to my students to fill out in class and return before they leave. I often ask about their major, their goals and other interesting information to help me get to know who I am teaching for the semester. This year, I’ll also be asking about ed tech. How confident do they feel about using it? Do they have access to a computer, printer and reliable Wi-Fi? Rather than waiting for issues to arise later in the semester, work with students from the get-go to ensure they can fully participate in the course you planned.
  • Know what other tech that the tools you require depend on to function. Many ed-tech products rely on computers rather than mobile phones to operate well, or they demand regular and reliable access to Wi-Fi to participate in asynchronous courses, for example. Without addressing the inequities among different students’ access to basic technology, adding new ed tech could exacerbate those inequities. When prepping a course, faculty can adopt technology that aligns with their student populations. When I taught at a research university, access to computers was not an issue. When I taught at a community college, however, students struggled to log on to the learning management system to read announcements, and not a single student had a computer in class. You should make contingency plans for students without access to technology and work collaboratively with them to ensure they can fully participate in learning.

While issues of access to technology will remain a long-term issue across the higher education sector, understanding that the digital divide extends beyond that can change how we design courses and work with students in important ways. Although individual faculty members can’t resolve issues of access for all students, they can address the learning experience in their own classrooms.

Bio

Nicole Barbaro is an educational research scientist at WGU Labs, an adjunct professor of psychology at Utah Valley University and the communications officer for the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.

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