We live in an era of change teeming with technology and environmental enhancements. Students are eager to use virtual, immersive, and interactive digital tools for learning these technologies, finding them entertaining and an efficient use of time. While technology alone does not guarantee effective learning, when used as a supplement to traditional teaching methods and integrated with best teaching practices, it can help create environments that do improve learning, attitudes toward learning, and inclusion in learning.1 Embracing digital tools can enrich and improve the higher education experience for all involved. While many eagerly incorporate these changes, other faculty and students remain reluctant to adopt them.2 This is understandable: it requires a shift from the status quo. Adopting new strategies, environments, and innovative technologies can require additional technical support and increase the workload of the instructor as they create and adapt materials. In addition, many innovations shift responsibility for learning to the student, who also needs to invest time in learning new tools.
On the brighter side, we can view advances in educational technology as a golden opportunity. We gain by understanding and experimenting with emerging technologies, and by ensuring that these tools are used wisely and with an appreciation for their limits.
This evolution, or revolution, has the potential to move us away from passive learning.
The tools contribute to an environment in which students have more agency for how to learn and how to demonstrate progress.
Adopting digital tools can increase the digital divide, and we need to address this issue directly rather than setting aside potential benefits to our community because the change is challenging. Let’s take a look at technology trends in education and how we might overcome barriers to help everyone benefit from technology and enjoy success in higher education.
Technology in Education is Here to Stay
A recent survey of 1400 faculty and students from public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States found an increase of almost 20% in the use of learning technologies (not including remote video conferencing), in higher education settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 Respondents also reported that the use of connectivity and community-building technologies increased by almost 50%. The use of group work tools to support collaboration increased by almost 30%. Post-pandemic higher education is continuing this trend in the use of technology.3 We welcome this trend yet recognize inequities can stem from lack of awareness of tools, lack of understanding of how they work, and cost.
Technology Alone Will Not Address Inequities
Software and technology reflect the awareness and attitudes of its authors, as well as the data used to train the system, regardless of whether the authors are aware of their biases. Although a great deal of attention is paid to user experience, the “how users feel” aspect of the experience often seems to overlook users that are outside of the developer’s community. We must address design and use aspects that affect the sense of belonging of all students, as well as the system’s assessment of whether a response is appropriate, such as accent or dialect. Technology use has become an integral component of the higher education ecosystem. Inclusive support is needed for faculty, staff, and designers as well as Diversity Officers2 to increase understanding of how these tools work and where inequities may arise. The certification of developers and institutional units to ensure that products are designed and used in a way that mitigates racial bias4,5 is imperative.
Interweave Innovative Technologies with Best Practices
In addition to protecting against bias in our systems and processes, students need to learn how to be broad-minded about acquiring knowledge. Research shows that students need to construct their own understanding and mental models of the material being covered.6 Presenting information from multiple perspectives and at multiple levels of abstraction serves both big picture and bottom-up learners. Working with information using a variety of problem-solving formats allows learners to relate material to their own experiences. Technology helps with this through digital storytelling tools, the Internet of Things (IoT), breakout and chat rooms, collaboration tools, learning management systems, and online repositories of guided exercises and interactive demonstrations (see Tip 1 below). Faculty can use these tools to nurture student agency, the key component to effective learning, and guard against presenting or learning narrow views.
Envisage How Technology Can Create a Lively, Animated Learning Environment
Technology in teaching rebalances the roles of guide, presenter, conductor, and progress estimator in an educational setting. Olin College of Engineering describes a vibrant learning environment as one in which “… Students and faculty … teach and learn from and with each other. Together, we build and sustain a culture of innovation, experimentation, curiosity and joyful exploration.“7 Technology can help us replicate this experience in several ways, such as just-in-time help, active learning activities, learner-determined options and personalized and adaptive experiences, and self- and stealth-assessment (see Tip 2).
As we explore the possibilities and see others unfold, the energy gained from our vision of engaged students will grow and prove a stronger force than maintaining the status quo.
Acknowledge the Effort Required to Adapt to New Ways of Doing Things
Transforming our work requires both time and resources. Once we recognize the changes required, we can seek opportunities to pool efforts and tap our students’ energy and creativity. Many of our students are familiar with digital storytelling tools, and others are eager to explore them. Students can work in teams to develop digital stories or how-to guides for new systems that the instructor can share with the class and use in subsequent course offerings (with student permission). Students can also explore repositories such as Model AI Assignments8 or Nifty Assignments9 and select assignments aligned with both course content and their interests and present them to the class. In addition, professional meetings offer multiple avenues to engage with new colleagues from other institutions in synergistic activities (see Tip 3).
Keep in Mind Our Collective Goal – Preparing All Students for the Future World and Future Work
Students come to us with a variety of backgrounds, resources, and abilities. Following the Universal Design for Learning (UDL)10 guidelines is essential. UDL informs culturally responsive learning that addresses equity, diversity, and inclusion. It takes into account that learner variability is the rule rather than the exception.11 Implementation of UDL can be facilitated by innovative uses of technology in education. Conscious engagement in multifaceted, multi-modal, adaptable, personalized, learning experiences, and ensuring that all practices and technologies are aligned with UDL, will help ensure that the delivery of instructional materials is equally effective for all students.
Technology is often not available in equitable or inclusive ways. Adam Stone cites four barriers to achieving digital equity:12 inadequate or unstable internet connections, use of mobile technology, expansion of IT helpdesks support for smartphones, and technology work arounds. Some are within reach of an individual instructor, while others require assistance for which we must lobby our administration or government representatives (see Tip 4).
Successful integration of technology to the benefit of all students requires collaboration among faculty, students, IT, administrators, and student services. Working together within the higher education ecosystem to ensure that all our students achieve success will require us to adopt the principles for working across interdisciplinary boundaries13 (see Tip 5).
As We Look Forward
“If inequity is woven into the very fabric of our society … then … code is a chance for us to weave new practices, politics, patterns.” – Ruha Benjamin14
Focus on individual student success, not lock step advancement of students. Provide tools, encourage students to use them, identify tutoring resources offered by honor or professional societies, or student academic center, and explicitly remind students of these resources.15 Empower students, instructors, and administrators to think creatively about the future.16 Effective use of technology and virtual platforms in higher education will require collaboration between educators and technologists, as well as students and administrators.17 Collaborate with colleagues at other institutions to share challenges, develop new practices, and promote new patterns. Engage in building our future. The National Science Foundation’s new Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) solicitation (NSF 23-507) “supports inclusive experiential learning opportunities that provide cohorts of diverse learners with the skills needed to succeed in emerging technology fields.” It’s one of our many avenues for collaboratively improving STEM higher education.
The future is in our hands. Technology is there for us to employ in service of our mission. Our collective creativity, knowledge, and resources will take us there.
For further exploration
- The EdTech Equity Project18 in collaboration with Digital Promise is developing toolkits and certifications to ensure that products are designed and used in a way that mitigates racial bias.4-5
- Creating a future-ready, equitable higher education system19
- Higher Education Computer Science: A Manual of Practical Approaches20
- Innovative Learning Environments in Higher Education21
- Transforming Digital Higher Education: Faculty & Students as Collaborators22
- Digital Learning: Best Practices for Higher Ed23
Digital storytelling tools24, 25, 26 introduce real-world applications and help readers analyze various aspects of concepts and explore advanced material. Breakout rooms coupled with learning management system discussion boards make it easy to execute think, pair, and share activities, collaborative problem solving, and group report-outs. Online repositories of guided exercises and interactive demonstrations support independent exploration. Interactive textbooks 27, 28 and publisher add-ons 29, 30 provide immersive content, tools, and experiences and in addition to supporting personalized learning.31
Just-in-time help: Easy access and built-in guidance delivers information just before it is needed and facilitates learning of new systems.32 Automated hints help struggling students understand the concepts and nudge students who excel toward advanced material.
Active learning activities, for example, think-pair-share,33 are built-in exercises with conceptual feedback and simulations34 that support multiple perspectives of the content being examined.35, 36
Learner-determined options, give students choices in how or what they learn, and personalized, adaptive experiences enable students to work independently and in alignment with their abilities, interests, and goals.31, 37, 38
Self- and stealth-assessment enables students to understand and track their own progress. Progress dashboards report to instructors how students are performing.39, 40
Holding birds-of-a-feather sessions at a regional or national conferences is a synergistic activity that can identify instructors at other institutions eager to join forces in learning about and/or training the new technology. National STEM higher education conferences sponsored by professional societies such as the the American Society for Engineering Education or the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education and the National Science Foundation Principal Investigators conferences welcome birds-of-a-feather session proposals. These events introduce us to colleagues across the country with similar interests and concerns, leading to long-term collaborations. Smaller regional conferences such as the ASEE section conferences or the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges conferences are more accessible, less expensive to attend, and brimming with potential collaborators in your region seeking similar support.
Tip #4: Technological Barriers
Inadequate or unstable internet connections can be addressed in part by instituting low-bandwidth practices in courses. Ask the administration to increase the bandwidth available to students and provide hotspots to those without reliable internet access.
Use of mobile technology: 56% of our students use smartphones as a secondary device and 20% use it as their primary device for accessing learning content.12 A learning management system needs to display material based upon the device being used. Students need to be comfortable asking their peers, IT, their learning resource center, or their instructors for help. Peer-based technology help discussion boards and reminding students to be altruistic can helpful.
Support for smartphones needs to be expanded. Post the technology support access point with course materials, making it easily accessible both in the course pages and in the course syllabus. Ensure that the students find the technology support helpful.
Finally, technology fails. Technology workarounds are needed. Consider developing a backup plan for addressing technology failures experienced by students and faculty.
Tip #5: Principles for working across interdisciplinary boundaries
- Forge a shared mission.
- Engage participants able to cultivate both their own area of responsibility or discipline, and to look beyond it.
- Nurture constructive dialogue: interact with an agreed-upon vocabulary, foster empathy and respect for different disciplinary norms, and reflect on what is working in collaborative interactions.
- Seek and provide institutional support.
- Bridge research, policy, and practice: establish enduring connections between students, faculty, administrators, policymakers, and industry practitioners.
The author expresses gratitude to Thomas Veague (AAAS) for his valuable feedback on drafts of this blog. She is also grateful for discussions with Dr. Thomas Higgins, Professor of Chemistry and Physical Science at Harold Washington College, City Colleges of Chicago, and the Harold Washington STE(A)M Professional Learning Community.