The Education Department released guidance this month which intended to provide strategies for the safe operation of higher education institutions, as well as address the impact of COVID-19 on higher education students, faculty, and staff. Among other issues, the guidance specifically addressed helping higher education navigate online learning in a pandemic and broadband and device access for students, faculty, and staff.

Supporting Higher Ed in Navigating Online Learning in a Pandemic

The guidance acknowledged many of the issues higher ed has faced during the shift to online learning, including teachers unfamiliar with online learning technology, equity issues with some students not having the devices they need, and the difficulty in translating ‘hands-on’ courses to a virtual environment, among others.

The guidance urged institutions of higher education (IHEs) to take advantage of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which was passed as part of the CARES Act in 2020. The department said that although many IHEs are “working to safely bring students back to in-person learning, the need for high-quality online options is here to stay.”

With that in mind, the Education Department provided four specific actions colleges and universities should take to strengthen distance learning capabilities.

Schools should:

  • Invest in professional development opportunities focused on digital learning: The guidance said the professional development should target areas of “known challenges,” including student engagement, that have emerged as an urgent priority in COVID-19. Additionally, schools should consider investing in longer-term professional learning endeavors that look to holistically improve the digital learning experience.
  • Explore different models of delivery: IHEs should regularly solicit – and then act on – students’ feedback about their learning experience. The guidance further noted that while asynchronous models can open doors for non-traditional students, these models must also be prepared with support services for students who may struggle with time management and who benefit from the structure of regular synchronous meetings. The department said that when resources permit, a hybrid-flexible model may offer support for diverse learning needs.
  • Leverage technology to promote student engagement: The guidance explained that while the move to online instruction has increased feelings of social isolation among students, technology can also be leveraged as a tool to foster positive engagement and community building. The department encourages schools to consider how instructors might use technology-based tools to foster an active learning environment where students have an opportunity to collaborate, engage in inquiry-based learning, and produce dynamic content.
  • Invest in digital learning records to promote student mobility: Given that COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of many students, including forcing them to relocate or suspend their education plans. To effectively leverage technology, advance social mobility, and close equity gaps, the guidance says IHEs should begin building an ecosystem to support digitally verifiable learning records as part of their comprehensive COVID response strategy

Broadband and Device Access for Higher Education Students, Faculty, and Staff

While the digital divide is a longstanding issue in education, the COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright light on the inequity among students at IHEs. Once again, the Education Department encouraged IHEs to use relief funds to help close the digital divide on their campuses.

IHEs can implement solutions for keeping students connected and supported, including the following:

  • Conduct ongoing needs assessments: IHEs were encouraged to use student surveys to determine the extent to which students and faculty have access to high-speed internet and devices and the quality of that access.
  • Expand Wi-Fi and broadband access to students and faculty: The guidance said colleges and universities should extend Wi-Fi access to public and outdoor spaces, including campus parking lots. Additionally, it said that IHEs should consider mapping their public Wi-Fi access locations on a local or state public Wi-Fi map. If a map doesn’t exist in their area, IHEs should consider using faculty or student geographic information system expertise to create one.
  • Support students with disabilities by collaborating with internal and external partners to ensure accessibility of online learning platforms for all courses: IHEs need to make sure faculty and staff know how to use built-in accommodations within the digital learning platforms.
  • Offer scholarships or funding to defray the cost of internet service for students who may have trouble affording access.
  • Develop free technology lending programs for students.
  • Aggregate a school system’s buying power to leverage cost savings on hardware, software, or service procurements.
  • Leverage Federal broadband funding to connect students and campuses: The guidance urged IHEs to leverage the temporary $3.2 billion Federal Communications Commission Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides eligible households, including Pell Grant recipients who have received an award in the current award year, a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service and up to $75 per month for households on tribal lands. The guidance said that IHEs should help students navigate the registration and verification process.
  • Join state-level broadband conversations to advocate for college students’ access needs.
  • Expand the array of communication tools and methods: IHEs should continue to make investments in multiple tools that facilitate easy communication between both faculty and students, as well as ways for students to communicate with administrative offices across campus.
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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs