Pave the Digital Divide: Benefits of Virtual Concrete

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On a virtual campus, it might be difficult to imagine what it looks like to replicate the famous facilities recommendation to build student pathways where they already walk. Physical spaces on campus tend to be boxed off and squared, yet students are constantly trampling down green manicured lawns, trudging over muddy tree roots, and ignoring cement sidewalks to more conveniently cut through common spaces. On campus, students frequently neglect those perfectly poured concrete grids. What do those 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 well worn spaces indicate that a student has chosen a road less traveled, yet we can trace visitors on electronic campuses easily, multi level systems can mask those paths from academic leaders, and students can encounter friction or difficult without it being obvious to administrators and faculty.

Creating ease of use for online learners is vital. Whether virtual or in person, all higher educational institutions should attempt to adapt to place learners 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 and leave an inflexible environment that doesn’t grow and change with student needs. As an ever-evolving ecosystem, higher education is as easy to steer as an iceberg. Having worked in for profit and nonprofit academic settings, I can confidently say that the path to access in higher education as we move forward will be through 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.’” We need to foster creative problem-solving interdisciplinary spaces where change is a byproduct of learning together.

As higher education professionals, we need to begin to adapt our undergraduate services to better meet the 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 have the chance to build portable credentials that easily apply in professional settings.

In the schools that will thrive, 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 institution apart.

Demonstrations of Professional and Academic Competencies

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-motivation, social environment/community, physical environment/community anchored in 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 represent actual 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, so that diversity is visible to students in multiple roles, across all subsections of the staff and faculty of the institution.

Trying, failing, reflecting, and changing

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 the virtual concrete paths necessary to move the field of education towards a more inclusive learning space where all of us thrive. We have watched where are students are gravitating towards, and we know what paths are hidden from site. Let’s build an equitable environment for all, one virtual concrete block at a time.

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