Online Leadership, Equity, & Access in the Wake of COVID-19


Melissa Vito, Ph.D., Interim Vice Provost of Academic Innovation, University of Texas at San Antonio

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Group of tooth wheel mechanism with Learn and Lead, Skills, Vision, Support and Goal words imprinted on metal surface.

This is the fourth and final post in a short series focused on topics addressing key issues for transitioning from emergency remote teaching to continuing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis while providing high-quality online learning. There are many challenges – and opportunities – that have resulted from the events of recent weeks. We’ll be covering a few of those here, and invite you to join in the conversation. In case you missed them, read the previous posts.

I just finished being a panelist where the last question was, “if you had to offer a single call to action to online and digital learning leaders right now to support access to quality and equitable online instruction what would it be?”  Because this is such a compelling and important question, we quickly ran out of time, though I couldn’t get the question out of my mind.

So, my answer is simple:  “Do not miss this opportunity and go for it!”  What does this actually mean?   If we as online leaders had tried to construct an environment where equity and access in online education were more critical and pervasive, we couldn’t have.  The COVID crisis has not only made remote learning a part of every student’s experience, it has happened at a time that has never been as disrupted as it is now and in that disruption a spotlight has emerged shining an extreme focus on societal inequities.   Though higher education has a tendency to inconsistently internalize the larger environment in its planning, the context now is laser focused on equitable access to quality,  whether it is healthcare or education.  And, we must not miss this message and this moment.  This is not a time to exist in the “bubble” that many perceive to be a part of  higher ed leadership.

Black Lives Matter (BLM), recent Supreme Court decisions around DACA and LGBTQIA rights have demonstrated a more pervasive level of support to address societal inequities than many might have anticipated.  And, in higher education as we moved to remote learning in the Spring, we all heard from students that access to reliable (or any) Wi-Fi, technology and devices and comfort in a fully online environment disproportionately impacted our economically disadvantaged, first generation and diverse students.  Students who previously were able to do course work on a phone quickly realized that was all they had, without access to computer labs or other institutional physical resources.

Suddenly an issue that had always existed though, frequently in the shadows of Student Affairs or Financial Aid, became front and center for students’ ability to learn.  And, now all levels of the institution are aware and committed to addressing.

So, for online leaders, we need to redouble our efforts to use Universal Design principles in building our courses and we need to make a compelling case for the financial resources necessary to address equity and access to quality online learning.   Educational leaders are more aware than ever of these issues; CARE support is to be used for student financial support and to also support institutions’ “costs associated with significant changes to delivery of instruction due to coronavirus.”   Online leaders must position their work to be able to receive some of this support. 

We need to ensure that faculty training includes addressing the needs of diverse, first- generation and economically disadvantaged students.   A personal connection to a faculty member is especially important to maintaining equitable access and quality. Student engagement needs to be front and center in course design.  And, we need to strengthen our readiness assessments and orientations for online and remote students. 

Online leaders have done a good job of building support for fully online students in fully online programs, including specialized enrollment coaches, specific advising and other specialized support.  The sudden full integration of remote learning and online education into the experiences of all students saw many institutions falling short in meeting all students’ needs.   Ensuring that our services can be delivered with equal quality in a virtual environment is critical—advising, student activities, mental health and others need to be available and accessible.  Support (including in and out of the classroom) must be provided to address students’ needs to feel a part of a community.

We also need to integrate resources for assessment and more robust predictive analytics so that we can measure the relative impact of various interventions and support on student success, including a focus on course completion data. 

Because of the ubiquitous reality of the current global recession–unemployment rates that were 3% in January rose to over 14 % in May.   Many of these jobs may never return and for those of us leading online learning and worried about making sure that access to online learning quality is equitable we need to acknowledge the opportunities to assist in creatine opportunities for those who have lost their jobs to finish degrees or gain new skills.  Our commitment to this populations must also recognize their special needs in learning in a remote environment, facility with technology and financial stresses.

And, finally, because our areas are growing we have an opportunity to hire staff—let’s make sure that our staff is diverse and that we not only represent the diversity of our student populations but that as leaders we mentor our teams to be able to step into online leadership bringing their own diverse backgrounds, talent and expertise.

 Melissa Vito

Melissa Vito, Ph.D., Interim Vice Provost of Academic Innovation, University of Texas at San Antonio

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