C. Edward Watson – Association of American Colleges and Universities
Despite the lofty language that infused our founding documents, history has proven that not all people have been treated equally in this country—especially with respect to education.
That’s where the Association of American Colleges and Universities comes in.
“Our goal is to help our member institutions provide the best quality of learning while ensuring all students, regardless of background, have the opportunities they need to succeed,” says C. Edward Watson, AAC&U’s CIO and associate vice president for quality, pedagogy and LEAP initiatives, and co-author of “Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes.”
Since receiving his doctorate in curriculum and instruction—with a focus on instructional design and technology—from Virginia Tech, Watson has spent more than 20 years in the field of faculty and instructional development. After five years as the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia, he joined AAC&U in 2017.
Throughout his career, Watson says he’s sought to apply technology purposefully for teaching and learning, and at AAC&U he can extend his voice a single campus to a national audience. He sees a digital divide existing among students that is being further revealed and exacerbated by COVID-19 in troubling ways—in both K-12 and beyond—and it is part of his role with AAC&U to try and bridge that gap.
According to Watson, quality education shouldn’t be dependent on geographic location, financial status or access to high-speed internet and cutting-edge technology. It’s AAC&U’s mission to level the academic playing field—and not just through technology, either.
“AAC&U’s mission is to make quality and equity the foundations for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy, and this mission is apparent in all of the work we do,” Watson says.
Highlighting and addressing educational inequities
Since the pandemic hit in March, Watson has heard plenty of stories about students of all ages sitting in cars in parking lots, trying to access the internet through a Wi-Fi connection from a nearby business or building.
Sure, getting access to the internet wherever possible is better than not being connected at all, but this specific example highlights a range of inequities that exists—even at the college level.
If a college student takes an exam in a quiet space in their parents’ basement, while a classmate takes the same test in a McDonald’s parking lot, surrounded by strangers and distracting noise—it would be untrue to say these students have equal settings within which to be tested, Watson says. Students’ performance on exams in such settings is most assuredly being impacted.
Whether it’s a fifth-grade spelling quiz, an Advanced Placement exam or a test to complete a student’s junior year in college, the same rule applies.
“This pandemic has highlighted a lot of these issues, especially socioeconomic problems that aren’t easy to fix,” Watson says. “If you’re taking an exam on a 27-inch Apple computer and someone else has to use their phone, who has the advantage?”
One of the ways to address these problems, especially in higher education, is to encourage faculty members to be aware of students’ circumstances—and consider accommodations that should be offered. One example is alternative testing methods; eschewing high-stakes multiple-choice tests managed by technology in favor of a testing strategy that doesn’t require an active internet connection.
Watson notes that a lot of remote teaching strategies and technologies are designed to combat cheating, but he also says there’s a “lesser of two evils approach” that needs to be considered.
“Faculty should ask themselves how they might help students who would otherwise be disadvantaged and might not do as well on a test simply because they don’t have access to technology or battery power or Wi-Fi,” Watson explains. “It’s a complicated calculus, but faculty need to wade into these issues and figure out how to make their classes as fair as possible for all students.”
Higher education post-COVID
It seems clear that the digital divide in education hasn’t been eliminated in the few months since COVID-19 moved schools to emergency remote teaching across the country. It’s up to the individual states, colleges, universities and local school districts to present the best possible learning environment for the upcoming school year.
Watson says that can be done in many ways. The California State University system—which includes over 300,000 students—made the decision in May that schools would be open, but largely virtual, for the fall semester. That’s given education leaders the entire summer to build the best teaching and learning models they can, while considering potential inequities.
“They leaned into the problem and are doing their best to build toward equitable pedagogical practices,” Watson says.
There are plenty of other systems and institutions that waited much longer to decide. In some cases, as a result of financial challenges resulting from COVID-19, schools are thinking about what programs they may decommission before the start of the semester. One example is Purdue University and the closure of its MBA program.
Watson says there’s a basic question for anyone in charge of delivering education this fall: Whether you are choosing face-to-face, hybrid or online, how do you make things as fair as possible for everyone involved? Notions of equity and quality should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds as new models and approaches are implemented.
The new normal for teachers
As if teachers aren’t stressed enough about dealing with a reduction in funding, substandard pay, out-of-pocket expenses for their classrooms and more, now they are being asked to develop lesson plans for any number of contingencies.
While many different models exist, one that Watson says is getting a lot of attention in higher education is called “HyFlex.” It asks college faculty to build their curricula and courses in hybrid, face-to-face and remote modalities, thus giving students the option to attend class or participate from a distance.
“Essentially, faculty are being asked to build three versions of the same course, but they also have to be the same in many ways,” he says. “There is a great deal of challenge associated with making equitable versions of the same course, and faculty workload is already high.” Fortunately, some institutions are adjusting research and service expectations for faculty while their attention is being turned to building HyFlex courses.
Watson is concerned that the HyFlex approach could result in significant challenges for some this fall—yet he is hopeful that these new practices will spark innovative ideas, and that some universities will develop a model that other institutions will to recognize as a path forward.
“I’m hopeful that once there are treatments or a vaccine for COVID, we can get back to a normal way of educating,” Watson says. He is also optimistic that the current academic year will result in new practices that improve “normal educating” in the future.
What the AAC&U can do
Recently, Watson’s organization has leaned into equity issues associated with the digital divide—an issue that will be front and center at AAC&U’s annual conference in January. The goal, Watson says, will be to examine what institutions can learn from the past year and to determine what worked well—and what didn’t.
“Where are the models of excellence that might help us get through the spring semester and beyond?” he asks. “We’re trying to highlight those moments of success so they can serve as exemplars for others trying to figure out how to do it better.”
AAC&U also has a state-level initiative working with leadership in 14 states holding monthly meetings about what’s happening in each—not just teaching and learning, but how states are preparing faculty, students and parents for whatever type of school year will greet them in the fall.
“State leaders can hear others’ stories and can see the ways things are working as a guide and aid to help make more informed decisions in their own states,” Watson says. “Sharing successful practices and brainstorming solutions to persistent challenges are key activities and important for the future of education.”
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