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Even before the global pandemic pushed many colleges and universities to teach students remotely, online learning had become an increasingly important part of higher education.

Yet, as this spring’s pivot to online learning showed us, equity remains a significant challenge.

Debate about the fairness of online learning tends to revolve around technology access. And there are indeed sharp disparities in home access to computers and reliable broadband service.

But equity in online learning is more than simply making sure students have decent technology and fast internet. Every student — not just the marginalized and disenfranchised — needs sound course design, sufficient student support and testing programs that make sense and protect integrity.

“At this time in our history, the global pandemic presents a unique opportunity to establish and refine an online learning model that is fair and equitable for all students.”

My company, StraighterLine, exists to help get students halfway through college by quickly and affordably completing their prerequisites. We have partnerships to recognize credits with 150 colleges and universities. We’ve been on the front lines of equity and access for more than a decade, and we know how financial challenges, a lack of opportunities in high school or simply life’s twists and turns can prevent someone from completing a degree.

We also know how to deliver high-quality online instruction to overcome these barriers. We’ve taught more than 150,000 students fully online in the last 10 years — including 35,000 students in 2019.  

Three critical elements of online learning make it fair for everyone.

1. Courses must be designed so that content is easily accessible.

This is important for any class, but especially those wholly online, where students might not have the benefit of live, just-in-time support from an instructor at the moment they’re struggling.

There must be clear alignment between learning outcomes, content and assessment. The course must be easy for students to navigate and logically organized. Course instructions should be simple, helping students understand not only what they need to do but why. (In other words, students should be able to recognize how assignments are linked to the desired outcomes.)

What’s more, content should be taught using several modalities, including video, readings, simulations and podcasts. What works best for some students might not work well for others. Giving students many different ways to learn plays to every student’s strengths.

2. Academic support must be readily available through multiple means.

Students should clearly understand how to ask for help when they need it. Instructors should be available through email and virtual office hours. Institutions should design additional supports, like frequent check-ins (especially for at-risk students) so that students don’t feel anonymous. Instructors and student success officers should use data analytics to identify which students need more support, so they don’t have to rely on students themselves asking for help.

Students can feel isolated when learning online, so instructors should build a sense of community. For instance, they might create virtual collaboration opportunities for assignments or establish peer support networks by encouraging students to answer one another’s questions.

3. Tests must be reliable, secure and proctored, either in person or online.

To achieve equity in online courses, assessments must occur on a level playing field. This means giving students multiple ways of demonstrating their knowledge. Tests must be closely aligned with course content and given in a secure environment. If in-person exams aren’t possible, institutions should take steps to ensure the integrity of online exams, such as by using live or technology-based online proctoring.

Unfortunately, cheating is common in higher education, and taking tests online provides even more opportunities to cheat. Accrediting bodies, employers and peer institutions must have confidence that students’ work is their own and that no one has had an unfair advantage in completing online coursework. They need to know that students didn’t cheat or game the system — and students themselves need to know they’re being assessed on a level playing field with their peers.

At this time in our history, the global pandemic presents a unique opportunity to establish and refine an online learning model that is fair and equitable for all students.

Amy Smith, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, is the chief learning officer for StraighterLine, which offers low-priced online courses equivalent to the general courses required for a bachelor’s degree.

This article about online learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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