Physical spaces on a college campus tend to be boxed off and squared, yet actual human students constantly select the shortest distance between buildings, trampling down green manicured lawns, trudging over muddy tree roots, and ignoring cement sidewalks to cut between the dorms and other common spaces. On a traditional campus, students wander off those perfectly poured concrete sidewalks. What do those well-worn student paths look like in an online institution?
We know that students create their own shortcuts as they navigate campus in all kinds of weather from dorm to classroom, to the library, and back to the book store. These unauthorized yet obvious spaces indicate that multiple students have chosen a road less sanctioned by the college facilities department. Unfortunately, our eyes cannot trace visitors on an electronic campus as easily. In large online settings, multi level systems can mask crucial student-selected paths from academic leaders. In these self-created journeys through a virtual campus, students may encounter friction or difficulty without their vulnerability to attrition being obvious to administrators or faculty. The paths are obscured, yet using predictive analytics, some paths can become vivid and obvious.
Creating ease of use for online learners is vital for higher education to expand access and increase inclusion of marginalized and geographically isolated learners. Whether virtual or in person, all higher educational institutions should attempt to adapt to place learners more in control. Even if that means that colleges need to create the virtual pathways where the student preferences lead them, as opposed to lock step options that could cause students to vote with their feet. Too much friction, and learners will leave an inflexible environment. “This is not for me,” is a common expression when students drop out. Institutions must be adapting constantly w/o they college can grow and change in response to shifts in student needs.
As an ever-evolving virtual academic ecosystem, higher education is as easy to steer as an iceberg. Having worked in for profit and nonprofit academic settings, the path to expanding access in higher education will necessitate increasing comfort with technology.
According to Sanderson et al. (2021), “Educators must work to address the systemic factors in order to establish just education. Educational justice will be achieved when all students have ‘the opportunities to find, figure out, and develop their skills and abilities based on their values and their communities’ values.’” Institutions need to foster creative problem-solving interdisciplinary spaces where change is a byproduct of learning together.
As higher education professionals, online teachers can actively engage and learn from each term’s new crop of students. Showing interest about each student’s individual knowledge, honoring a learner’s vision, and fostering explicit connections to resources available for mental and physical health services, online teachers can meet the holistic needs of all learners. Equity, social change, and educational justice depends on creating more elastic environments where students can demonstrate prior learning, display proficiency in multiple modalities, and build portable credentials that easily apply in professional settings.
In the online schools that will thrive in the future, learners will have unprecedented access to peer and academic mentors, skill activation opportunities, while encountering student centered thinking in every hiring decision, course development conversation, and programmatic decision that is made. A complex competitive higher education landscape requires innovation to set an online institution apart.
How do we as online facilitators enhance student capacity to learn?
According to the authors of the Social Determinants of Learning Framework, we can do this by “ensuring the following, physical health, psychological health, economic stability, self-and motivation, social environment, community, physical environment anchored in a specific institution’s student characteristics.” Learning in virtual settings needs to provide quick access to quality physical and mental health support, academic and personal support, and financial literacy coaching.
As we look to demonstrations of commitment to equitable access in higher education, leadership should be ever evolving and hires should represent current and anticipated student demographics. When inclusive hiring best practices are followed, the recruitment and development of diverse school officials is operationalized in an ongoing and iterative way. Diversity is not a hypothetical concept; it is visible to students in the diversity of multiple roles, across all subsections of the staff and faculty of the institution.
Caring about the health, wealth, welcomeness, and belongingness of online learners involves accommodating the individual student as a whole person. By increasing school official recognition of inclusion best practices, institutions also provide students with models of excellence to aspire towards. Everyone must be invited to the table because what comes next in higher education will require broad stakeholder representation for long range creative problem solving.
As online teachers, we should be the architects of bridges that connect learners to resources in the field of education towards a more inclusive learning space where all of us thrive. We have watched where students are gravitating, and we know the location of some of the paths currently hidden from sight. Let’s build bridges strong enough to support an equitable environment for all, one virtual concrete block at a time.