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What Schools Can Do to Address Inequities in Online Gateway Courses

Jessica Rowland Williams, Ph.D.

Director, Every Learner Everywhere

Ensuring the academic success of historically underserved students in online courses will require more than just redesigning the curriculum. For decades, student performance in introductory college courses like general chemistry and college algebra has served as a reliable indicator for a student’s academic success in college.

Despite the high stakes of these “gateway courses,” colleges and universities have generally done little to ensure these courses do not contribute to the equity gaps that continue to plague first-generation students, students of color, and low-income students. As a result, these courses continue to fail students at high rates and serve as a significant driver for students dropping out during or after their first year. 

As higher education transitions to delivering gateway courses online, colleges and universities are at risk of increasing the number of vulnerable students that will fail and drop out of college after the first year. To prevent this, faculty and administrators must redesign gateway courses and implement high-quality, learner-centered teaching strategies with equity at the center. But achieving academic success in the online environment goes beyond curriculum design for many students.

Many barriers

Challenges for online learners often extend beyond technology use and accessibility. Learning online is different than learning face-to-face and the skill set students need to succeed is also different. When assessing the needs of online learners or identifying challenges, it is critical to expand our understanding of what students need to be successful online learners. Instead of only asking whether a learner has a computer and internet access, we may also want to ask questions like: 

  • Can the learner communicate clearly through writing?
  • Is the learner able to retain knowledge from reading, online videos, podcasts, or online discussions?
  • Is the learner self-motivated, organized, and disciplined enough to work independently?
  • Can the learner stay on task and avoid distractions while studying or working on assignments/projects?
  • Does the learner have a quiet study environment? 
  • Does the student regularly check their campus email? 

For many learners, a gateway course may represent their first opportunity to rigorously apply skills in independent learning, time management, and organization. Many learners may need the support of faculty, family, or other online learners to develop these skills. 

Whenever possible, we should bridge learners together so learners who have not yet developed these skills in online environments can benefit from the knowledge of those who have.

Expanding mentorship opportunities

We also must retain opportunities for 1-on-1 academic mentorship. Although students of color now account for nearly 45 percent of the undergraduate population, achievement gaps still persist for certain racial groups. As campuses continue to become more diverse, we must find meaningful ways to engage these students. 

Studies have shown that personalization and relationships are key factors in maintaining motivation and engagement, particularly for students of color. In addition, students who receive academic mentorship in their first year of college have a lower dropout rate, greater satisfaction with their college experience, higher GPAs, and increased academic performance, according to several scholars. 

Many historically black colleges and universities, for example, are known for generating high success rates with students, in part due to the close personal connections that are often fostered in those environments. Even in an online environment, 1-on-1 mentorship will continue to serve as a critical support for many students. 

Offering support

Parents, grandparents, and other support systems can also make a huge impact. Community is a critical component of student success, and the importance of community support in the midst of times of crisis or social upheaval cannot be understated. 

Without access to the traditional resources schools offer on their physical campuses, first-year students will need the additional support to stay engaged in online courses. We should not assume families of learners will automatically know how to support them, which is especially true of first-generation college attendees. 

Providing information via email or virtual town halls to parents, grandparents, and other support partners about technology resources, tools and online course expectations will enable and empower them to keep learners engaged and informed.

Willing to listen

Finally, schools and supporters need to lead with questions and not assumptions. Faculty and administrators should regularly ask learners how they can help or if there are conditions preventing the learner from meeting their goals for success. Most of us are experiencing emergency remote teaching and learning for the first time, which means we have a lot to learn. The learners will be the ones who teach us.

Since 2017, Every Learner Everywhere has worked with leading experts in the field to define high-quality digital learning, and influence its implementation at colleges and universities seeking evidence-based strategies for student success. Through this work, we’ve learned how to help faculty implement innovative teaching strategies and support faculty in expanding their teaching practice to create more equitable outcomes for their students. 

Through our focus on digital and online learning in gateway courses, we have ensured more students stay on track to complete and persist. As we continue to navigate this crisis, Every Learner Everywhere will continue to leverage the best of what is known about digital and online learning to move toward our vision of high-quality teaching and learning for every student in every course.

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