Mar 10 2021

Bridging the Technology Knowledge Gap in Higher Ed

Prioritize digital literacy to remove barriers to effective online learning.

It is undeniable that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in every industry, especially higher education. Colleges and universities must prepare students for an increasingly digital workforce — and prepare faculty and staff for an increasingly digital campus. However, despite the significant growth in online learning, many students and faculty still face a technology knowledge gap, preventing them from effectively using digital learning solutions.

Addressing this issue might require a fundamental change in institutional culture. “It’s about understanding the role of technology in the culture of the school and doing better, whether it’s in training or general integration of tools,” says Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

To realize the full potential of technology in higher education, institution leaders must develop comprehensive strategies that empower all students, faculty and staff to become digitally literate. Here’s a look at some ways to overcome common roadblocks to digital literacy.

Ways to Improve Digital Literacy for Underserved Students

There are a number of approaches universities can take to track and mitigate issues pertaining to digital literacy. It begins with understanding which populations are most at risk of lacking digital literacy. One demographic that often needs more technology support includes students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Winston-Salem State University, which serves many students from underserved backgrounds, is one university effectively addressing this knowledge gap. Inside Higher Ed reports that the university was able to offer free Adobe Creative Cloud services to all faculty, staff and students after negotiating a contract with Adobe in 2018.

The university anticipated faculty resistance to adopting unfamiliar tools. To address this issue, Winston-Salem required many educators to give digital literacy assignments that involved using Adobe. One assignment, for example, asked students to complete a presentation on social justice using Adobe Spark pages.

Eli Collins-Brown
Our goal is that every single student will be exposed to some sort of digital literacy assignment by the time they’ve completed their bachelor’s degree."

Eli Collins-Brown former director of the Center for Innovative and Transformative Instruction, Winston-Salem State

“Our goal is that every single student will be exposed to some sort of digital literacy assignment by the time they’ve completed their bachelor’s degree,” Eli Collins-Brown, the former director of the Center for Innovative and Transformative Instruction at Winston-Salem State, tells Inside Higher Ed.

Although the initiative received some resistance from faculty, who saw technology integration in the curriculum as “a distraction,” many still requested access to the Adobe license the following semester and have continued to revise curricula to incorporate these tools.

“I was extremely pleased at how well Adobe Spark was received by the students and how much more interactive their presentations were,” Phillip Timcheck, a nursing instructor at Winston-Salem, writes in a university blog post. “With such visual appeal and video integration capability, I am glad I made the change. Student feedback for the product also appeared to be positive, which is always a plus!”

How to Help Adult Learners Achieve Digital Literacy

Another demographic that often struggles with digital literacy includes older adult learners who have varying comfort levels with technology.

The U.S. Department of Education runs the Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) initiative, which compiles evidence-based practices for adult education. Some of LINCS suggestions for bridging the technology knowledge gap among adult learners include:

  • Using technology to support adult learning. In this free webinar, a panel of educators share their success stories and strategies in helping adult learners embrace technology.
  • Integrating digital literacy into instruction. Check out this collection of lesson plans tailored to helping adult learners improve their comfort with technology.
  • Helping learners problem-solve with technology. This free webinar explores technology challenges that adult learners face and offers best practices for how to address them. Some strategies include setting goals, creating individualized lessons and offering miniassignments.

Anticipate Faculty Struggles with New Technology

Another major roadblock to digital literacy is that educators are unable to help students embrace technology if they face similar challenges themselves.

The leap to cloud solutions, Zoom meetings and real-time chat sessions has been a significant change for many professors. Turner Lee from the Brookings Institution even encountered challenges when she taught a remote course last year at the University of Maryland. “I spent more time trying to understand the system than I did the students,” she says.

While faculty members may be subject-matter experts in their disciplines, many struggle with technology, says Andrew Pass, founder and CEO of A Pass Educational Group, a company that helps improve curriculum designs. “Even if they have great teaching abilities, their job is not to understand the different learning tools available. They need support in doing that.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's 3 ways to increase tech adoption in higher education.

As experts in their field, some professors may feel embarrassed or hesitant to ask for help. IT departments may want to anticipate this kind of reluctance and reach out to educators to learn what tech difficulties they really have.

Be mindful that professors and instructors may be up at odd hours to accommodate students in different time zones. IT departments should strive to offer personalized help during a time that works for educators with hectic schedules.

How to Personalize Technology Trainings for Faculty and Students

Another barrier to digital literacy is a lack of engaging tutorials. Technology trainings often suffer from low participation. One reason is that trainings are often held as group sessions, which are not always effective. “Many needed one-on-one training. Everyone’s skill set is different,” says Nicholas Jackson, an instructional designer for the Division of Educational Innovation and Extended Studies at Lincoln University in Missouri.

To address this, IT teams should offer flexible training formats and times. Keep in mind that some educators learn better through hands-on practice but lack the time to attend personalized trainings.

The Vanderbilt University addresses this issue by offering both virtual and in-person faculty training sessions. Vanderbilt also offers trainings on an as-needed basis.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's 5 videoconferencing tools for student group projects.

Free Up IT Departments for High-Level Tasks

In many cases, IT departments lack the bandwidth to provide the level of personalized training that students and faculty need.

When bombarded with IT help requests, it may be helpful to use certain faculty members as the first line of defense, says Penny MacCormack, chief academic officer at the Association of College and University Educators. This could mean something as simple as making sure that faculty are giving students relevant phone numbers and pointing them to FAQ pages. It is also worth considering outsourcing some tasks to a managed service provider who can assist with application and help desk support.

Write More Efficient Emails to Faculty, Staff and Students

Another factor that is preventing students and faculty from seeing IT’s tutorials? They are simply receiving too many emails.

The transition to remote learning has increased the volume of email across the board. As a result, many students are skipping over important IT emails and university announcements. Research from the University of Colorado Boulder found students had trouble staying up to date with important announcements if the messages were sent via email. "Too many emails make it difficult to sort through deadlines and important announcements,” one survey respondent said.

Jackson, from Lincoln University, recommends reducing the number of emails sent by compiling messages into longer emails.

Some instructors have started communicating through videos instead, which Jackson says has a higher engagement rate. “We also started using social media, and teachers moved away from emails to more class announcements,” he says. “Students have responded better.”

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