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In March 2020, schools and universities across the United States were forced to transition to remote learning in a matter of weeks or in many cases days due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As our Academic Technology team worked to support faculty during this pivot, we felt grateful for existing technologies like Zoom and Canvas which helped to support a smoother transition. These technologies, however, were largely dependent on students’ access to sufficient computer and internet access. It became immediately apparent that these access issues had shifted from annoyances to absolute barriers to student learning in many cases, as we could no longer rely on access to public computers and public access to the internet to assist in closing the gap.
Even before the pandemic, the assumption that people had reliable internet in their homes had been debunked in PEW’s 2019 report. In this report, the PEW research center found that one in four adults did not have broadband at home (2019). In an earlier report, by contrast, the PEW Research Center found that mobile device ownership is nearly ubiquitous (2018). At the intersection of these two reports, there is an opportunity for educators to meet student needs in a more equitable fashion. Students already have the tools in their pockets that they need to engage with learning in meaningful ways. As instructional designers and educators, we just need to use those mobile devices more effectively.
“At Bakersfield College, we are launching a multi-faceted instructional design fellowship program in which we collaborate with faculty to reimagine how we design online courses to leverage affordances while mitigating constraints”
At Bakersfield College, we are launching a multi-faceted instructional design fellowship program in which we collaborate with faculty to reimagine how we design online courses to leverage affordances while mitigating constraints (Rockey, 2020). In the instructional design fellowship “Person Up,” a faculty member and an instructional designer work together to design high-quality course shells for high-demand community college courses. These course shells will integrate humanized, equity-minded, culturally-responsive, and data-directed approaches to reimagine how we teach online. A fundamental aspect of this course design process will be designing with the assumption that students will be accessing courses with their phones and not with a computer. This shift in perspective will support a universal design for learning approach in which we ensure that the course is fundamentally accessible to students using mobile devices from the beginning.
Each course is unique, including disciplines from Math to Psychology to English. Recognizing the uniqueness of each of these courses and associated learning outcomes, we approach mobile design as a continuum. Some courses are well-positioned to be designed for complete mobile device completion, while other courses may require students to use a computer for some portion of the work. For these courses, the shift in perspective will ensure that we communicate the details of the computer requirements to students before the course begins. For example, a course may require a final exam or a midterm paper that requires a computer for completion. By letting students know what to expect ahead of time, they will be able to make a plan for those specific projects. However, they also know they can still complete most of the course using the device they already own.
The “Person Up” fellowship empowers faculty to individualize instructional design for their particular course and for the students who take the course. It reframes the use of technology, using simple tools and UDL techniques to make courses more accessible and usable. Instead of asking, “How do we help students finish online courses when they don’t have a computer or reliable internet?” the question becomes, “How can we create courses that are more flexible to meet student needs and access limitations?” At Bakersfield College, our solution has been to both assist students with the provision of devices and access, and to guide faculty in the reenvisioning of our courses to leverage near ubiquitous mobile device ownership. We recognize that in a world where so much learning takes place online, the mobile-friendliness of our courses is an issue of equity and access to education. By leveraging technologies students already have, and addressing existing preconceptions that students need to have a computer to go to college, we can fulfill our goal of supporting each and every one of our students as they pursue their college and career dreams.