As schools have turned to online learning to continue engaging with students during the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities in access to internet and technology were laid bare. We talked to Dr. Blue Brazelton, assistant professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University, about how schools can better implement new technologies to increase inclusivity.
Dr. Blue Brazelton
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Northern Arizona University
Why is it important for higher education to prioritize pedagogy and planning over technology?
Technology changes and evolves much differently than pedagogy. No one is really trying to re-invent the definition of “experiential learning,” but we do routinely seek out new ways of providing experiential learning through technology (simulation and virtual reality are two popular technology solutions for well-funded programs).
It is also daunting to ask a teacher to create a new pedagogy as opposed to finding a way to use technology to support their educational philosophy and pedagogical choices. I don’t recommend selecting a new software platform first and then hoping it matches with the needs of your instructors. Instead, identify the needs of the instructors and find the right technology to support the teaching.
How does technology have the potential to aid with distance learning?
As we’re all experiencing, technology is allowing us to continue teaching while maintaining physical distance for public health and safety. I would encourage retiring the phrase “distance learning” and replace it with “remote learning” or “online learning.”
Technology can help us preserve the physical distancing we need to observe during the continuing pandemic, but it can actually increase the access to the instructor for the student, so “distance education” doesn’t fit with how I see the potential of online teaching and learning.
Where does implementing technology driven by wisdom and intention start from in the structures of universities and colleges?
It can start at any level, from students providing useful feedback to instructors, department chairs, or college deans; or from executive leadership using data about the needs of their institution to select and implement an appropriate technology or system.
Regardless of the origin, the point here is that with all assessment projects, you have to collect the right kind of data and listen to it. Most technology companies can customize the system or software to fit the institution’s needs, but again, that’s only possible if those needs are clearly identified and supported by data.
What are the dangers of newer technology?
Access is crucial. Take for instance the great intention and role of a college developing a mobile app to help students assess how safe it is for them to physically go to campus or class each day. If the mobile app is the only option to complete a personal wellness assessment prior to going to campus, then anyone without a mobile phone, or without a data connection, might not be able to follow established policies and protocols.
If the pandemic forces your library to only offer digital services, then a student without a computer has lost an important resource.
One of the most dangerous assumptions about technology is that everyone has a reliable computer and internet access at home. Unfortunately, the reality is much different, and if we rely on technology to be the primary access point between students and institutions, then some students will be underserved and under-supported.
Data exists that shows how under-represented communities are disproportionately affected by assumptions about computer ownership and internet access, compounding this danger for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and low socio-economic families.
What is one innovation that you believe will change higher education in the next several years? Five years? Ten?
I think that we’re going to see some increased usage of what is being called “next-generation digital learning environments” from here on out.
Now that the percentage of college instructors who have taught online has increased exponentially due to the pandemic, we’re going to see more great teachers think about alternative learning environments from the traditional online course shell with content, assessments, and discussion boards. While that learning environment might be very effective and appropriate for many instructors and fields, others are going to try to create new environments to frame remote learning.
If you are old enough to remember “Second Life,” the 3-D virtual world simulation, you might also remember how some college courses were convened in this virtual space, leveraging the character avatars to virtually be in the same room. I’m aware of one instructor requiring all students to create and use a Bitmoji avatar to personalize an online learning environment. I was part of a team considering using virtual reality headsets to increase engagement in an online learning environment.
I could go on, but it’s clear students are eager to have a digital learning environment for synchronous engagement beyond the video-chat squares that are being used so heavily right now.
How can universities better understand how to implement technology and provide equitable access to education for diverse communities?
The key for universities is understanding the needs of the communities they want to reach and serve, and use technology as part of their approach.
Setting up parking lot wifi hotspots is one imperfect example of addressing the access issue, where geographic areas are reviewed for their internet access options and create a solution. From there, if institutions want to commit to prioritizing equity and diversity, then they need to address that at the faculty, staff, and leader-level.
Technology doesn’t turn a professor with racist opinions and values into an anti-racist ally, so adding in the technology for virtual office hours isn’t going to make that professor more approachable. For each of these priorities, institutions need to focus on the people of the system, as opposed to the technology of the system.