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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss the issue of equitable outcomes and whether or not higher ed is prepared to support all student groups this fall.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly


Phil: Welcome to COVID Transitions, where we discuss the changes that higher education is going through and reaction to the COVID pandemic. I’m Phil Hill, and I’m here again with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wiseman. So it’s great to talk to you guys again.

Kevin: Hey there,

Jeanette: Hey Phil. 

Phil: Just a little bit of a personal note. It sounds like we’re doing some socially distant vacationing next week, or at least doing as much of a vacation as we can handle. Kevin, tell me what you’ll be up to next week.

Kevin: Well, because I prefer a physical distancing to social distancing, Daphne and I will be going to Yosemite, and we’ll be doing some camping far away from people and closer to bears, Pumas and other things that don’t wear masks, and you want to stay six feet away from.

Phil: Yes, that’s true. And Jeanette?

Jeanette: Yeah, so we’re going [00:01:00] up to the northern part of New Mexico, Navajo Lake, it’s right on the border and we’re renting a houseboat, which I’ve never done.

So we’ll see how that goes. Almost camping.

Phil: Up on the northern part of New Mexico. Is that the U.S. border? I used to get that a lot when I lived in New Mexico.

Jeanette: Yes, it is the US border between Colorado and New Mexico. Yes.

Phil: Well, as for us, we finally have accepted reality that we’re not making it to my oldest daughter’s graduation in Paris in September. We just canceled that trip officially. At least we had a month of pretending like there was a little bit of real life, and doing planning, picking places to stay and things to do. I think it was a charade, but we finally canceled that. We’re going to try to find a different place where we can just hole up in a house and with a pool and wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to watch a Zoom graduation. That’s not next week, but that’s our vacation [00:02:00] plans.

Kevin: Well, get some French food to bring.

Jeanette: Lots of French wine.

Phil: What wine is appropriate at 4:00 a.m.? Is that a white or red or a rosé?

Kevin: I’d go with the Margaux, but champagne is a French appellation that you could go with as well.

Phil: I think that’s socially acceptable.

Kevin: Especially if you add orange juice.

Phil: Last week we talked about accessibility and how it was a ticking time bomb – that as schools transition dealing with COVID, that accessibility concerns were going to become more prominent in the fall. It’s based on things we know how to do in higher education. As we rushed things online and as we deal with budget cuts, a lot of it’s getting getting overlooked. It was a caution about what might happen in the fall.

This week, we want to talk about a companion issue, which is about achievement gaps. We’ve [00:03:00] long had achievement gaps in higher education between online and face to face. Specifically, we want to talk about different demographic groups. First generation students, ethnic minorities, various groups where for several years people have been focusing on we need to pay attention to what achievement gaps are. In the very least, make sure that they’re not getting worse due to digital learning. Obviously, we’d like to reduce the gaps.

There’s been a lot of effort for online learning, face to face and hybrid as well as a system. We’re learning what works and what doesn’t work. The caution this week that we want to talk about is how much of this effort we’ve been doing around reducing achievement gaps might get thrown out the window and might come to bite us in the fall because we’re over looking it.

The [00:04:00] two things I would posit that is a concern of mine, first of all, you have budget cuts. You’re talking about things that are not as easy to quantify. They’re susceptible to all the budget cuts that schools are going through. Are they keeping their support staff? Are they funding any of the programs they’ve already put into place? The second reason is because there’s been such a mass migration to emergency remote teaching. Quite a few schools and a growing number of schools are going fully online for the fall that are not typically there. Do they even have the support structures in place to implement the programs that we’ve already seen, increasing the success to reduce achievement gaps?

I’ll start out with saying this is a big concern of mine. As awful as I think that people aren’t talking about it enough and where it’s really going to raise its head and become a problem for schools [00:05:00] in the fall, not just as an embarrassment. It’s something that should be worked on, but it also could impact state funding, accreditation. It could impact other issues that target schools, trying to make sure that they are improving these areas. That’s my hypothesis, that we have a real problem that’s going to become much bigger in the fall. I’d like to start out with saying, do you guys share the same concern? Jeanette, what are your initial thoughts?

Jeanette: Absolutely. I think that a lot of things are being overlooked. Again, I think people are doing the best they can with what they have been given. There’s been a lot of things written about how, especially lower income and first generation students are struggling with housing and food security. That leads then to things like if they are going online, if they have a place in their home to to study. [00:06:00] Do they have a computer or do they have Internet access?

All of that is things that are much more controllable on a campus and students are able to get the services they need.

Now, I think there’s a couple of things going on. A lot of these students, because they are on scholarship, if they decide to take a gap year, because their online learning experience in the spring wasn’t what they needed. They may lose that financial aid or the scholarships. They’re almost required to move forward without the services. I think all of those things need to be taken in consideration. In the long term, effects are not only not having a community in a population that’s better educated, but also for those individual schools.

There’s real enrollment risk here as well moving forward beyond when we get out of the COVID issues. Those are all things that I’ve been thinking quite a bit about, actually.

Phil: Well, as long as we’re negative, Kevin, what do you worry about? Do you [00:07:00] share the same concerns?

Kevin: I share the concerns, but maybe not the negative outlook because Angry Kevin is somewhere else today. I’ll start with the nomenclature.

Right now, groups I’m working with are changing “achievement gap” to “education debt” to recognize that students aren’t necessarily responsible for the gaps. It’s embedded in how we talk about and work toward these equity improvements, we need to consider that there are institutional barriers. There are different aspects of what we do as instructors. As Jeanette was bringing up, the student services side of the house and making sure that equity is kind of embedded in supporting students, even outside the course experience.

The other thing I want to bring up is while mainstream media like Inside Higher Ed haven’t talked about equity for maybe a month and a half, small efforts are being made locally. [00:08:00] For instance, Des Moines Area Community College made universal design for learning and equity the theme of their annual summer conference, which was virtual this year. Kevin Gannon from Grandview University and I gave the keynote addresses. What was really nice to see was that this was a continuation of a year long arc dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion. While we may not be seeing the mainstream media in higher ed focusing on the equity challenges as fall looms over us like a haboob down there in Arizona and New Mexico. That’s a mile high cloud of dust of equity challenges. I think there are efforts out there and I’ll talk about more of those as we go through this particular chat.

Phil: I’ll take a step back, I do think that there has been discussion in education circles in the media about equity in [00:09:00] terms of Internet access, having a computer, having a quiet place, particularly for synchronous video conferencing. I do think that’s gotten the discussion, and hopefully people are dealing with that. I think it goes deeper than that. To think that even if you talk about it, it’s a challenge.

One of my favorite visits when we were doing e-Literate TV years ago was when I visited Northern Arizona University, and they had a somewhat unique position being a research university with up to 40 percent of incoming students were first generation students. What they were discovering is they had to address that if they were going to deal with retention, student success, and they had invested in several programs to deal with this. I wouldn’t say all of it, but most of it happens outside the classroom. It got into the [00:10:00] emotional support and encouragement for students who don’t necessarily have family members who can say, ‘hey, I went through the same challenges you went through when I was in the situation.’ Instead they would match them up with peers who were one year ahead of them. That would provide a lot of the mentoring. They invested a lot of their advising systems so that whatever level of support they’re getting from the university, people understood them, who they were, and could target their support and be proactive to help them out.

These types of programs are expensive. Part of my concern is what’s happening with the budget cuts. Are we seeing cuts to the very support programs that actually have been improving the results in these different areas?

Kevin: That’s tough to say.

I mean, looking at listserv comments and things like that, I’ve been encouraged to see, and I made a blog mention of this, that different [00:11:00] campuses are looking for new ways to incorporate students into their workflow so that they’re able to address the needs of students.

I know we’ve brought up first generation students and students from disproportionately impacted ethnicity groups like LatinX, Hispanic students or black African-American students. We aren’t able to track progress for many of these groups other than gender. That doesn’t even take into account non-binary students, which the HEDS consortium found was negatively impacted in the spring. I think having an attention to it is one thing, but knowing how to help each distinct group is another. You brought up some great examples with respect to first generation students, what we call a hidden curriculum and making sure that we’re clearly stipulating all of the aspects of anything we’re asking students to do, including the why and not just the what and how. The support for students of student services, [00:12:00] like mentoring programs or things like that, are going to be critical.

Phil: Jeanette, do you have much of a sense on are we going backwards in support? Are you seeing things about budget cuts and that might impact other schools, even have the resources or can support people making these programs or any kind of insight you have on this?

Jeanette: No, I haven’t seen a lot of insight. I think the budgets are still being worked on. Right now, it seems to me, at least what we’re seeing collectively within the job or what I’m hearing from other professors and instructors that I know, are that the budgets are so in flux because of the lack of clarity around what is going to be provided at the federal level right now. I feel like that’s making things really kind of just muddy about what they can cut and what they can’t cut and people [00:13:00] just trying to do the best they can. I was just thinking while Kevin was talking about this, we also have to keep in mind a lot of these communities are also the ones that were hit the hardest with COVID. Not only are they dealing with just educational issues, but they’re also dealing with serious health issues or people in the family that are not doing well. School is always sort of a safe place for a lot of these places in terms of housing and even jobs on the campus and also food. Those things have been taken away from these students, not only the services, but how are they going to manage next fall?

I think the positive side, and it’s not necessarily achievement gap of what I’m hoping will have just really long lasting effects that could be really positive for the higher ed system in general. Because of COVID that ACT’s and SAT’s have been canceled and [00:14:00] so a lot of these students that were not able to get ahead because their testing scores weren’t where they’re supposed to be, that it looks like admissions have maybe changed so that it’s not necessarily about the test. More students that were kind of falling into these places, are now looked at more for ability and achievement rather than one test score.

Phil: The focus where there is a bigger risk is more on the retention side than on the admissions side?

Jeanette: I think so. Right now it seems like if people think a lot of looking at those admissions was always really skewed.

I think we saw that especially last year with all of the admissions scandals that were happening. Things were happening that if you were a student of means or you came from a wealthy family, then you were going to schools based on that.

To me, it seems like if admissions changes, for [00:15:00] the long term, because of COVID, that’s only going to be better for students overall in my mind.

Phil: You guys are both telling me I should be more optimistic about the fall, or at least I’m hearing the message that there’s potential upside on this. Let’s also talk about the subject of if you look at online programs, online schools, they’re aware of this issue and there has been a lot of effort, in my opinion, over the years on how to support a greater variety of students, partially because there was a recognition that students who went into online programs often were quite different from an ethnic background, from an age background, from a situation of being working adults and having other life responsibilities to balance. There has been this general sense that we have to think of our students differently and support them where they are. That’s already happened.  [00:16:00]Now what we’re dealing with are students who have not chosen to be in an online program, but they’re getting put into an online program at least. Definitely for the spring, but increasingly for the fall. I think there’s sort of a first time situation where it’s not just let’s support the students, but what about all the students where this was not their chosen modality? Do we even understand what we need to do to support them adequately?

Kevin: Working with different community colleges in California, the spring 2020 statistics showed that in courses that began the semester as online courses, students continued to improve with their success rates compared to the previous year, whereas the traditional courses that were forced into emergency remote teaching and learning circumstances were [00:17:00] anywhere between five and 10 points lower than the previous year in terms of number of students who pass those classes. What’s interesting that you’re pointing out is how are we addressing the needs not of the online courses that have been set up to be online, but those that have probably going to have to revert to online again after campuses feel like they could have open, but now can’t. That article in Inside Higher Ed that we saw this week, will virtual learning be better this fall? Will it be better enough? That quote I really liked and there was from Jose Bohane, there has never been this kind of investment and pedagogy in American higher education in my lifetime.

It’s something that we all talked about in the last podcast, that there is this increase in uptake of faculty members trying to improve their teaching. I do think that statistic we saw in spring 2020 may not be as bad as it was in spring 2020. I don’t think it’ll rebound to the normal rates [00:18:00] that traditional classroom experience will generate.

Phil: On balance, though, and I don’t think we have statistics here, but one of the observations I made from NAU, for example, is the fact that so much of what they and other schools have put in place, that is helped them with students who have challenges, first generation, students of lower economic means, is support outside of the classroom. What you’re describing is classroom support and improvement. There’s got to be a balance there. I don’t know that there’s a simple answer, but how much of the challenge is met inside versus outside of the classroom?

Kevin: Well, that points to what I’ve been telling folks they should try, which is take some student, work student money and convert it to create online learning mentors.

People who have taken five or more online classes should be recruited [00:19:00] to be mentors to students who are new to online learning, have only taken one or zero and be their buddies alongside them outside the course experience, but providing guidance. Working with one university to create near peer coaching videos by students for students that are a little bit like that Texas A&M video that a student talked about working at home and how to set up your space. Even that, the students I’m working with right now said that type of video needs to be more transparent and show that it can be challenging. You can’t just show how easy it is to set up a space. When some students are faced with sharing a room with two other people and may not have a quiet place to study, may not have good Internet, may not have a device, all those things.

Phil: I like that idea, especially because it’s raising the subject of how much of the opportunity for improvement, but also the need for support and encouragement. Ideas [00:20:00] should come student to student from their peers, and school, setting it up to enable that to happen, but the power of using peer support.

Jeanette: Kevin, how difficult do you think setting up a program like that is?

Kevin: The example I’ve been giving is the one at LaGuardia Community College. They have what’s called the student tech mentors, which before COVID was a group of around 50 students that were helping not only other students with the coursework that required technology, but also helping the instructors who needed help using the technology for teaching. That has been in place for a number of years. I do it in my own class and in the beginning of a semester, I ask every student in our in-person meet ups how many online courses have you taken? If they say five or more than I asked them offline, would you mind being a mentor and watching the discussion [00:21:00] forum and helping students who look like they’re new? I capture the names of the students who haven’t taken an online course before, and I try to pair them up if they’re both willing.

If I can do that as an individual instructor, I can imagine that somebody from an academic technology unit could find ways or maybe the head of student undergraduate dean or something like that would be able to put together some kind of survey and create a structured way to provide matching between veteran online learners and new online learners.

Phil: So part of it is just the awareness for faculty and course designers, but mostly faculty of that this is a big opportunity in a big issue experience and these types of courses and the opportunity to turn them into mentors and how powerful that idea could be. It’s really an awareness or it’s not solely an awareness, but awareness is such a huge part of [00:22:00] this opportunity moving forward.

Kevin: Along the lines of awareness, I’ve talked about the South Phoenix Oral History Project as a podcast that includes students and now they’ve been including blog posts. I think they’re over 40 blog posts by students about learning during COVID and these podcast interviews as well. Just today, they launched a campaign that they’re going to donate 10 dollars to a fund that supports underserved college students for every subscriber or people that follow them on iTunes or Spotify. At least in August, they’re going to give that money to the Maricopa Emergency Grant Fund. Those are the types of things that are outside the course and in some cases outside an institution that’s just an instructor who took it upon herself to start helping students in her area. I just I love to see that kind of effort.

Phil: So part of the issue, it raises a question how [00:23:00] do we know? Do we even have adequate information to tell us how things are going once we get into the fall? We’ve worked and we’ve mentioned several times that California community college system and they’re doing a much better job with their data. You can actually look up and look based on ethnicity. You can look at first generation and you can break down data based on these various demographics. Unfortunately, most of it is purely based on course success. Doesn’t do as good of a job of tracing not just how do you do in this class, but how does this impact you and your subsequent classes? Still, there’s quite a good system here. How many systems or schools have that type of data, not just in their systems, but available for people to explore and figure out if how the achievement gaps are progressing, particularly [00:24:00] as we get into this big unknown fall situation? I don’t know, again, that there’s a simple answer, but that’s one of the questions I have is do we even have that information available?

Kevin: Can we trust the data? Because working with different community colleges at the individual level, the data for first generation students is a field that’s not filled in for 60 percent of the population.

Then your data is really not accurate. You have yes, no and don’t know. The don’t know outweighs both the yeses in the noes. Age, gender, that doesn’t count for non binary students, and ethnicity are really the three demographic factors that you can track. Student information systems right now with a reliable sense of we have data on most of the students, but things like status as a veteran, status as a foster youth, all those different factors. Students with disabilities sometimes don’t report [00:25:00] it, all those different aspects of students, we know we need to be helping more because of all the surveys and reports from the students themselves, it’s really tough to tell.

Phil: It’s going to be interesting to see in the fall. I guess these two issues are the accessibility and achievement gaps or how did you phrase it again?

Alternate education debt.

Education debt. I tend to be more negative right now or I’m worried about it quite a bit. Yes, I do see the opportunities as well and the increased focus and the changes to admissions.

Certainly we’re seeing signs of opportunity in these areas. I also, personally, think that we’re going to have a little bit of a rude awakening in the fall once we get a little bit more data or information on this. It’s certainly something that we need to be watching for because logically, there’s [00:26:00] higher risk in these areas.

Kevin: If we can look at, let’s say, just the attendance at the Black Minds Matter series that was put on by the center of organizational responsibility and advancement, they repeated, it was so popular. When I tried to log into the first session, it said all 2500 people have already logged in. You’re going to have to watch the recording on YouTube.

If there’s that much interest in supporting students of color in online courses with this Black Minds Matter series led by Doctors Wood and Ford, then we know that there’s a craving for it. It’s just are there are enough offerings and is it going to be done where faculty can actually make changes to their courses in time for the fall? You bring up really good points that this is something to think about and make sure we’re attending to. I guess we need to balance my sunny optimism with the reality that not everybody’s working on it or aware [00:27:00] of it.

Phil: I hope I’m a little bit too pessimistic on this for what happens. I will just reiterate the point that we also have this unknown situation of different groups being thrown into a modality they didn’t choose. Do we even understand all the impacts there? Yes, there’s a lot of opportunity, but this is a topic along with accessibility that I think we need to pay a lot of attention to in the fall to see what’s happening, to see what we can learn, and to see if we’re taking advantage of opportunities to make improvements in these areas.

It’s great talking to you guys and look forward to our discussion next week.

Although, Jeanette, I’m not sure. Will you be back in time for a discussion next week?

Jeanette: I think so. We’ll keep them guessing so that I think I will.

Phil: Ok, well, great talking to you guys and enjoy your vacations next week.

Kevin: Yes, you too.