Equitable Use of Technology

When we use technology well in our courses, we create equity by forming additional pathways to student success and support a broader set of needs and contexts. As they say, though, all that glitters is not gold and looks can be deceiving. Like anything else, integrating technology into one’s course design just requires a bit of planning and consideration to go from a shiny new addition to a golden opportunity. 

Take demonstration videos, for example. In the infancy of remote instruction, it was popular to record face-to-face instruction and post lectures online. At first blush, this seemed great—more students could access the lecture than could be physically present face-to-face! But since then, we’ve learned a lot about the problems with this model. Students are much more likely to succeed in an online environment when the videos that engage them with course materials are tailored to them and “chunked” into segments based on the material covered. It perhaps seems counter-intuitive that in order to make face-to-face and online instruction equitable requires something different and not something the same.  

Different needs across modalities are easier to recognize, but it’s also important to consider equity within a given environment. Sticking with video as an example, consider a set of instructor-recorded videos in a hybrid course used to introduce the topic of each unit. A great idea! But there are a few equity features to consider with respect to the video example: 

  • Are these videos captioned or transcribed? Studies have shown that even students who do not “need” captions use them and find them advantageous to their learning. Unsurprising given what captions or transcripts do: offer a parallel pathway of communication to what’s said in the video. 
  • Can all students access them? This might seem a silly question given the apparent ubiquity of internet access—but fewer students have reliable internet than we might first think, and, given the importance of your course materials, if even only one student can’t access them, equitability is in trouble. One recommendation is to host video somewhere where students can download the videos to a device at times when they do have access for viewing at times when they don’t. Transcripts are also lower-bandwidth than videos requiring a lesser connection to access. 
  • Where/how else can students get the visual information? As above, the first thing we think of when it comes to video is captions for the hearing impaired, but what might the visually impaired be missing? When recording video, it helps everyone if you can be highly descriptive. Also consider providing any key visuals as image files or in another format for close-up viewing outside the time constraints of video. 
  • How does time factor in? Video often takes longer to view than text does to read—and we process this information differently. Providing a transcript as above can help with this! For students (like everyone else), time is a precious resource. Add to this ongoing and unexpected commitments beyond schoolwork and even these sorts of small alternatives add up. 

What this all boils down to is that equitable use of technology is not quite as immediate and straightforward as we might first imagine—in part because we cannot anticipate all possible student contexts. While the use of technology can ultimately increase access, a few considerations are necessary to ensure this is the case. As a start, consider the following: 

  • What depth does the technology add? It is important to weight the additional cognitive load and bandwidth (both literally and metaphorically) of the technology against its potential benefits to student learning. 
  • What are the “real” requirements? What auxiliary needs are there to succeed in using this technology? Videos require a device with a good internet connection and, depending on circumstances, a pair of headphones, etc. Even something as common as a PDF (especially scans of hard copies) might not be accessible for all students if it’s not properly formatted for screen readers. 
  • Who might this technology disadvantage or exclude? This question goes beyond disability accommodations. Consider whether remote students would experience a delay of some sort. Is the technology cost prohibitive? Might there be cultural, religious, or familial limitations to the use of this technology? These could be formalized (such as not using a keyboard during Shabbat) or systemic (such as a timeframe for accessing a platform coinciding with care of a loved one). 
  • What is private and what isn’t? Who gains and who loses? Read the terms of service. Does the technology (such as software) collect student data? If so, where does it go? Can the technology provider claim ownership of student work? Can they sell student information? These aren’t always huge red flags, but students should be made aware—and an alternative should be available to them. 
  • How do students get assistance? What does assistance look like? Assistance may look different depending on what type of technology you’re using. Few (if any) technologies are 100% “plug and play.” When things go wrong, who do students contact? What does support look like? And what are the backup plans if things go sideways? 

A good way to begin approaching these questions on your own is to use an existing checklist for technology integration. While many, like this one from The Pennsylvania Digital Media Literacy Project, are designed for use in a K-12 environment, the principles apply to higher ed and can be quickly adapted. Here are a few to get you started. 

To explore any of these topics in greater depth than the resources linked here—or even just to bounce ideas off someone—please feel free to reach out to CATL for a one-on-one consultation.