Q&A With Every Learner Everywhere’s Jessica Rowland Williams

Jessica Rowland Williams PortraitIn January 2021, Every Learner Everywhere and Tyton Partners published a report to examine the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teaching and learning in higher education. The survey focused on gathering the perspectives and experiences of faculty teaching some of the highest-impact courses in higher education: introductory and gateway courses.

In this interview, Every Learner’s Executive Director Jessica Rowland Williams shares insights from the report, her concerns about the challenges facing higher education in a post-COVID world, and why faculty resilience gives her reason to be optimistic.

What is the overall mission of Every Learner Everywhere?

Our mission is to help institutions and faculty use new technology to innovate their teaching and learning, with the ultimate goal of improving how we serve Black, Latinx, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students.

We believe that digital courseware can be a catalyst for improving student outcomes, but technology alone is not going to do it. Courses need evidence-based teaching and digital courseware to enable faculty to adapt their instruction to meet specific students’ needs. Technology can help faculty promote active learning and provide learners with actionable, timely feedback. But how it gets implemented is so critical—and we have a holistic view in how we think about teaching and learning. It’s not enough to just focus on the technology if the ultimate goal is to improve student outcomes.

Why does Every Learner’s latest report, Time for Class: COVID-19 Edition, focus on faculty who are teaching introductory courses?

We know that student performance in gateway courses is a direct predictor of student retention. We also know that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other minoritized groups have higher DFW rates. They earn fewer course credits and they’re less likely to graduate. So if you look at the biggest challenges when it comes to student success, and distill it down to an initial touchpoint, these gateway courses are one of those initial stumbling blocks.

Given that, understanding the faculty experience in these courses is important. They play such a critical role and with COVID, we felt it was especially imperative to know what’s happening on the ground at these critical points in the education of the most vulnerable students.

What were some of the key findings from the report?

The first thing is that faculty want more help. They are more open to online learning and trying new technologies in the classroom, and their perceptions are more positive. But it’s also still really new to them, and they need more support designing and teaching the courses.

One of the biggest challenges for faculty is student engagement. They are really struggling to keep students engaged. We hear a lot about how students are ghosting courses, where they stop showing up, stop doing work, and stop responding to emails. If they do show up, their cameras are off and they’re not participating on discussion boards or in chats.

The interesting thing is that engagement is also the number one concern for students. We’re constantly getting feedback from students around their experience with digital courseware and digital learning. Some of the things that they say are also related to engagement. They talk about how there is a need for timely feedback from faculty, where they’re submitting assignments and not hearing anything back, and how that’s a reason that they’re not feeling more engaged.

What did your report find about the role that professional development is playing in supporting faculty?

Faculty say that their colleges and universities are offering more professional development, but it’s not enough and it’s not equitable.

I think it’s important to point out that the most resourced institutions have access to faculty development. If you’re teaching at Harvard or Yale or Stanford, then you have a much greater chance of having more opportunities for professional development than if you’re teaching at a local community college. We’re working to level the playing field and provide resources to the field that are available for these faculty to use.

[Every Learner Everywhere and its network partner Achieving the Dream has partnered with ACUE to support community college systems in North Carolina and Ohio by enrolling hundreds of faculty in programs designed to equip faculty with evidence-based teaching practices for online teaching and learning.]

 

As colleges and universities begin to implement reopening plans, what would you like to see from leaders to support students and faculty?

First and foremost, we need to pay more attention to the mental health struggles and needs of both our faculty and students. Every survey we do, no matter what we’re talking about, that issue rises to the top. Faculty are stretched thin. They’re exhausted and worn out. We know our students are also completely worn out. We need to stop ignoring that.

[Read more: 4 Ways Faculty Can Be Allies for College Student Mental Health]

Second, I am worried about this upcoming school year. Some argue that the incoming class will be the most underprepared group of students in the history of higher education. That will be particularly true for students coming from under-resourced environments, where they really struggled with remote learning in high school and didn’t have the access and opportunities that other students did.

Knowing that student performance in gateway courses is a predictor of retention and graduation, institutions have to be prepared to serve these students. That’s a big task to take on and we need to prepare for that.

 

What makes you hopeful or optimistic for the future of higher education?

The disparities during COVID and the shift to emergency remote teaching has led to a lot of talk about how we just have to get back to the classroom. But we can’t forget that being in the traditional classroom has not historically served Black, Latinx, Indigenous and poverty-affected students well either. The traditional classroom is deeply embedded into how we think about education, and it will take a lot of work to change how we think about teaching and learning in the traditional classroom.

But digital learning is still relatively new, and we have an opportunity to embed equity into that type of teaching and learning in a way that will be harder in a traditional classroom setting. So I’m really excited about the conversations we’re having around what it means to have an equitable and inclusive digital learning space. I’m excited about the opportunities for professional learning in this space and the fact that people don’t have the same preconceived notions about how things have to be that they have in traditional educational settings.

As we look to the future, that’s what I’m most hopeful for. We can really shape this type of learning into something that can be meaningful and impactful and finally equitable for our students.

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