Exacerbating “at-risk”: Why lacking access to content and technology widens the achievement gap

Exacerbating “at-risk”: Why lacking access to content and technology widens the achievement gap

To better serve, higher education must understand its students.  As an open enrollment institution, Chadron State College’s mission to “…enrich the quality of life in the region…” includes those most at-risk.  The meaning of “at-risk” is as diverse as the institutions that define it; yet the consequence of not supporting this population for success affects post-secondary the same, which in turn places the institution at-risk as well.  At Chadron, the statistics are the definer: 67% of all students are first generation college attendees, 92% receive financial aid, and 40% are identified as deficient in core subject areas of reading, writing, and/or math.

As CSC’s first Director of Transitional Studies and primary researcher, developer, and instructor of transitional courses, I, like most, based my initial beliefs in how best to serve at-risk students on the traditional developmental education paradigm: “preparing the underprepared” in the subject areas they are most weak.  At Chadron, this is recognized by ACT (or concordant) subset scores below 19 in reading, English/Writing, and math.

I also believed the majority of entering freshmen, Millennial masters of texting and Facebook, were comfortable, adept, and resilient with learning online.  This belief persists since there is little in scope or breadth of assessing student competencies in computer technology-evident, for example, by a lack of a nationally accepted (and fee-based) digital literacy college admissions test-much like those for core subject areas in reading, writing, and math.

As my understanding evolves for the population I serve, I realize the beliefs and assumptions for serving those most at-risk are flawed.  The issue of supporting at-risk students actually hinges on access to content and technology-both of which are critical to higher education success and workplace readiness.

In my one hour, front-line role each week in the advising center, I am often asked a common question with an elusive answer: “When will I get my financial aid?”  This year the advising staff taught me the date of aid disbursement is largely dependant on the processing time associated with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Typically, the student endures days or weeks of wait through each step of the FAFSA depending on how prepared the student is in their response. After filing the online application, signing the Master Promissory Note, and completing Entrance Counseling, the student hopes their FAFSA is not 1 out of 3 randomly selected for verification, which requires even more time in completing the Verification Worksheet and supplying the institution with copies of additional documentation.  Remarkably, the majority of students receive their financial aid around the time the semester begins, i.e., they likely have access to funds for purchasing textbooks for Day One of class.  For the rest, the wait lingers on into-and sometimes through-the second week of class or beyond.  The awareness of financial aid wait time is important because it offers an answer to a question I realize I had not asked myself in the last year: “Why aren’t my students buying the textbook?”  My assumption that all students had access to their financial aid and access to funds for purchasing the textbook by Day One was wrong.

In Fall 2011, I replaced the traditional textbooks I required my students to buy with open educational resources (OER), which are high-quality and peer-reviewed digital materials freely available and openly licensed.  The impact of utilizing OER was profound for two reasons: 1) because my students were prepared for class from Day One; and, for this reason, 2) I began teaching at Day One.  I am ashamed to admit that before using OER I purposely neglected content instruction because I knew most students would not have their textbook-and this was acceptable.  In a 16-week course, this teaching practice can be mitigated in the following weeks, but in a condensed 8-week course (where one week covers the equivalent of two weeks of content), it is unacceptable and a waste of time.

For first generation college attendees relying on financial aid, many of whom without an understanding of correctly filing the FAFSA or its imperative link to much-needed aid disbursement, waiting for aid affects their access to content.  Furthermore, for at-risk students already deficient in core subject areas, lacking the textbook on Day One might not impact whether or not they will succeed, but entering into week two, week three, or deciding, “I can get by without the text,” statistically decreases their chances of passing the course altogether.  What is worse is this “get by” behavior sets a pattern likely to be repeated in their other courses and into the semesters to come.  In this environment the student becomes even more academically at-risk.

Access is also the reason students have not had opportunities to develop the technological skills needed for success in college and the workplace.  The “K16 tech environment” of computer labs comprised of tethered desktop PCs loaded with Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and tight administrative reins on what students can and cannot do-a form of “technology censorship” if you will-is creating a greater divide for at-risk students to cross and, ultimately, survive college.

Although most of my students are proficient in surfing the Web via the “big blue E,” creating a presentation in PowerPoint, and composing papers in Microsoft Word, they are also alarmingly deficient in essential digital literacy skills.  Most do not know or have experience with the range of today’s devices, operating systems, Web browsers, applications, and file extensions-elements most in higher education assume students know before they enter college.

About half of my students “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) to class, often the gift received after graduating from high school, but their K12 technology experience has prevented them from establishing a framework of fundamental computer knowledge needed to sustain their device.  IT administrators in K12 unknowingly have created an entire generation of dependents not only unable to exist in a non-Microsoft world, but also incapable of articulating their needs when troubleshooting.  The common response I hear from the at-risk student not experiencing success online is: “I’m just not good with computers.”

The proprietary software market and administrative IT stronghold (which makes perfect business sense from a purchasing and management perspective) prevents students from experiencing and thriving in the myriad of free software alternatives, but also in the unrecognized teachable moments-which is the essence and foundation needed for succeeding in learning online.  The effect is astounding: at-risk students do not feel capable, confident, or resilient with the computer technology they need for online learning.

As higher education budgets tighten and issues focusing on the quality, effectiveness, and sustainability of post-secondary programming surface, there is increasing pressure on faculty to deliver online content, reduce completion time, and improve completion rates.  Moreover, opportunities supporting high-quality and instructionally-sound online learning narrows as less resources are available to assist faculty in the transition from face-to-face to online.  High-impact teaching and learning in a face-to-face classroom is not easily replicated online when faculty do not have an awareness of or know how to apply best-practices in instructional design, online communication, and academic technology support for their students.  Likewise, creative and innovative online teaching is just as time-consuming to nurture as it is in face-to-face teaching.  Faculty work hard at being good but they must also have the support to succeed whether online or in the traditional classroom.

In essence, the achievement gap is widening for at-risk students’ in college not just because of deficiencies in subject area(s), but also due to accessing the tools they are most dependent upon for success: the textbook and the computer.


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