Expert Viewpoint

Five Keys to Ensuring Student Equity in Online Learning

Online learning can be an important tool for advancing student equity by bringing instructional opportunities to students that didn’t exist for them before. For instance, students in many school systems (especially in high-poverty areas) lack access to qualified teachers for computer science instruction, Advanced Placement® courses, and other learning opportunities that can lead to well-paying careers. For these students, online learning can help level the playing field.

However, that’s only true if certain conditions are met. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, online instruction can sometimes widen equity gaps if the circumstances aren’t favorable. For online learning to support student equity, here are five critical elements that must be in place.

The Right Technology Infrastructure

Whether the learning occurs at school or at home, students need the technology tools to support online learning effectively. These include a robust digital device (not just a smart phone) and high-speed connectivity.

The device that students use should be appropriate for the type of instruction given, but at a minimum it should include a keyboard and a large enough screen for students to interact with the content.

A big reason why learning gaps grew when the pandemic forced a shift to remote instruction last year was the lack of high-speed internet service in many low-income or remote households. The new infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden could help, as it includes $65 billion for improving home broadband access. School systems can also take steps such as distributing mobile hotspots to students who need them.

Time and Space to Learn Without Interruptions

Another reason why learning gaps grew during the pandemic was that some students didn’t have a quiet place to learn from home, or they were forced to share a computer with their siblings during remote instruction.

When expanding opportunities through online learning, school systems can minimize these distractions by scheduling time for students to take online courses while at school, either during the regular school day or after hours. If that’s not an option, then asynchronous online courses (that don’t meet at a certain time of day) would allow students to log in and complete their work when it’s most convenient for them, enabling them to work around distractions as much as possible.

Accessible Learning Content

Students need online learning content that’s accessible regardless of what kind of device they’re using or whether they have any learning disabilities. The content should be device agnostic, meaning it can be read just as well from any device — and it should be designed with accessibility in mind.

VHS Learning was involved in the development of the National Standards for Quality Online Learning, which include standards for the accessibility and usability of online content. Content that aligns with these standards is equally accessible to all students, so that all learners can easily navigate and interact with all course components.

Engaging and High-Quality Instruction

Not all online courses are designed with the same level of quality. To give every student a chance for success, students should be able to experience high-quality instruction from a talented and well-trained teacher using best practices in online learning.

High-quality online learning puts students at the center of the learning process. The learning should be engaging, collaborative, and activity-based, with students learning and applying key skills through authentic, hands-on projects. Strong relationships between students, their teacher, and their peers are critical for success whether the instruction takes place in-person or online — and a high-quality online learning experience should foster a great deal of interactivity.

Comprehensive Student Support

Students need comprehensive support to ensure they remain active and engaged learners, and that’s especially true in an online setting. Teachers must work closely with students, providing frequent check-ins and feedback to make sure students don’t feel lost in class. In online courses from VHS Learning, school staff serve as local site coordinators to provide additional support for students.

One of our core beliefs is that all students deserve access to high-quality learning opportunities. With these five elements in place, online learning can help level the playing field and advance student equity.

About the Author

Storie Walsh is vice president of technology for VHS Learning, a nonprofit provider of full-time and supplemental online instruction for high school students for the past 25 years.