Could Tech Be the Great Equalizer in Higher Ed?

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The use of technology in the classroom has traditionally been a touchy subject. Do kids really need to learn from behind screens, with Facebook, Pinterest, and any number of distractions just a click away? But, in grade school and high school classrooms at least, we’re starting to see a shift in mind-set: these days, teachers are starting to see technology (when used appropriately) as an effective tool to personalize learning and increase engagement. Some of these tools allow kids who are visual learners to better internalize their lessons; some encourage them to learn at their own pace, rather than falling behind and getting discouraged or racing ahead and getting bored.

For the younger set, technology has become a powerful resource. So why is it that so many university classrooms are still limiting their tech use to old-school PowerPoints and learning management systems that, more often than not, cause more problems than they solve?

The question isn’t just about embracing innovation or showing off shiny, new technologies; it’s about finding ways to give students the personalized learning experiences and the support they need to succeed in the classroom.

In a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bryant University’s Kathleen Daly points out that, while 94 percent of high-school students with learning differences get support, only 17 percent of college students do. And, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, she says, just 25 percent of students who receive support in high school continue to do so in college.

“High schools have been more willing to experiment with pedagogy, to use technology in classrooms, and to shape their classrooms into student- and learning-centered spaces. So why do we at the college level stubbornly cling to ineffective pedagogies? […] When educators resist moving forward from old-school strategies, the problem is a lack of knowledge of how students learn and how we can help.”

Daly encourages educators in higher-ed institutions to consider stepping out of their comfort zones and rethinking their “tried and true” practices in order to better accommodate students’ diverse needs without making any individual feel like a burden. And they can begin, she says, with practices that are so easy to implement they shouldn’t require a second thought:

“Showing a movie or film clip? Turn on the captions. Not only is this a simple method to increase accessibility for hearing-impaired students, it also serves English-language learners. Using images or paintings to accompany a lecture? Add a brief description in alt text; when you make your slides available to the class, students who use adaptive technology, like screen readers, will have access to that content. The result is increased learning for all students.”

But what if we took it a step further? What if more universities started incorporating supplemental self-paced, AI-driven lessons into their course curricula?

These programs could give students the flexibility they need to shape their own progress in critical skills and content areas, adapting the lessons based on whether they’re visual or auditory learners, spending more time on tougher content while breezing through concepts they’ve already grasped, and still receiving personalized, expert feedback, insights, and recommendations for improvement. Meanwhile, professors could track their students’ progress—individually and in aggregate—and use that data to tailor the rest of the curriculum to each class’s unique needs.

While classroom accommodations are undoubtedly a complex issue with countless factors to consider, there’s no reason higher-ed institutions can’t start to embrace technological solutions to help personalize learning and improve access for all students, regardless of their needs or limitations.