Digital Learning Blog

Abundant Learning: How Online Courses Build Equity and Access

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Digital Learning Blog

The story we’ve been told about higher education is changing dramatically. What was once seen as the clearest path to a successful career, the college degree now is being closely examined for its role in deepening inequalities and being out of reach for many Americans. This reassessment gained momentum during the pandemic, which saw a precipitous drop in university enrollments, a phenomenon not seen in decades. As doubts about the absolute necessity of a four-year degree grow within the job market, a clear disparity becomes evident: 75% of new jobs demand a bachelor’s degree, but only 40% of job seekers have one.1 

Compounding this issue is a phenomenon known as the “paper ceiling”— a term that encapsulates the barriers faced by skilled job seekers who, lacking a college degree, find themselves sidelined. This systemic barrier disproportionately affects certain segments of the workforce, particularly Black workers, Latinos, and veterans, who are often skilled through alternative routes (STAR) but find themselves underemployed. In response to these challenges, higher education institutions have begun to align their offerings more closely with market needs through industry partnerships and enhanced equity and diversity programs. However, these efforts have been met with criticism for their perceived inadequacy and for contributing to the commodification of education. 

The core of this debate lies in the criticism of traditional universities as bastions of exclusivity rather than generosity, operating within a paradigm that prioritizes selectivity over access. For over a decade, technologists have been arguing that the organization and physicality of colleges renders education a scarce and expensive commodity, thus perpetuating inequity.2  They advance online learning as an antidote, which, despite facing dismissal by some for fostering “digital diploma mills,” offers a beacon of egalitarian accessibility.  

Some contend that the resistance from traditional institutions towards online education stems not from a defense of academic rigor but from a fear of losing their grip on the education market. 3  The promise of digital technology in education, according to Michael D. Smith, is akin to the disruption seen in many industries, although the potential to democratize access to high-quality instruction also means challenging the traditional university’s monopoly. Because of this one shouldn’t seize upon online learning as a panacea, but instead adopt a more nuanced approach of adopting technology to augment, rather than supplant, the fact-to-face educational experience. 

The promise of this dual approach is in line with recent research on online learning – a topic I discussed in my book Update Available: The Algorithmic Self.4  In the wake of the pandemic, a wave of hesitation arose towards online learning. This stemmed from widespread technical issues, student disengagement, and the rushed implementation of “remote learning” during a chaotic period. While instructors and students entered this new digital world with good intentions, their lack of experience often led to disastrous results. Notably, the negative impacts weren’t evenly distributed, with some demographic groups struggling more than others. 

These matters have been followed closely by the Online Learning Research Center (OLRC) in UCI’s School of Education, a national voice in the field of internet pedagogy. The conclusion drawn by OLRC  researchers Tamara Tate and Mark Warschauer is that the success or failure of remote learning hinges on many factors beyond the technology itself, including “physical resources, including up-to-date computers and broadband internet access; human resources, such as the skills needed to succeed in online classes; and social resources, such as teachers trained to effectively conduct classes online, that shape equity, or the lack thereof, in online education.” 5

This means that successful online learning is indeed feasible, but only if delivered by experienced educators, accompanied by appropriate supports, and adaptively tailored for the varying needs of a diverse student population.  Rather than a rigidly applied one-size-fits all curriculum, broad based student success requires keen attention to differences in student preparedness, income, gender, race/ethnicity, immigration status, ability/disability, work and family responsibilities, or other characteristics.  Put another way, this entails an approach driven by principles of “equity” in which provisions are made to ensure learning outcomes are not affected positivity or negatively by such differences. 

Everyone I’ve discussed above agrees that inclusive learning strategies are essential for effective online education. Such strategies include providing low-cost textbooks, offering flexible assignment choices, applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL), using culturally responsive teaching methods, and giving study skill support. Reflecting this widespread agreement, universities nationwide currently are implementing programs like UCI’s Inclusive Teaching Institute (ITI) to give instructors the tools needed to ensure student success. 6

Despite the push for inclusivity, the widespread adoption of these practices faces persistent obstacles of the kind I’ve been discussing. Hesitation often stems from perceptions among certain stakeholders that value lies in restricting educational opportunities. Many institutions, administrators, faculty, students, and families uphold the existing hierarchy of a meritocratic system. They believe in competition as a fundamental value, juxtaposing it with the seemingly opposing egalitarianism of inclusive teaching. Ironically, despite current criticisms of being out-of-touch with the mainstream, much of higher education remains firmly rooted in these traditional American values. The preference for a stratified system based on merit sharply contrasts with the egalitarian ideals of inclusivity. It appears that higher education, despite its rhetoric of innovation, struggles when it tries to break free from entrenched habits.7

Given this intransigence, it becomes evident that addressing the challenges facing higher education calls for a multifaceted strategy. The plan must embrace the potential of digital technology to make education more accessible, while also reimagining the value and delivery of education in ways amenable to existing institutions and their constituents.   

Change doesn’t come easily. But never have the stakes been higher for institutions like UCI to find consensus on fairness and equity. This requires comprehensive policies that tackle systemic disparities and incentives that encourage diversity initiatives. Faculty development is key, empowering educators to integrate equity into their practices. Positive modeling by leaders sets robust standards for inclusivity. Constructive dialogue within the university community is vital to identify and address issues effectively. These collective actions can significantly enhance the academic environment, making it more equitable and inclusive for all students. 

1 “75% of New Jobs Require a Degree While Only 40% of Potential Applicants Have One.”

2 “From Scarcity to Abundance: IT’s Role in Achieving Quality-Assured Mass Higher Education”

3 The Abundant University: Remaking Higher Education for a Digital World

4 Update Available: The Algorithmic Self

5 “Equity in Online Learning”

6 UCI Inclusive Teaching Institute

7 “Teaching for Change through Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity.”

About the Author

David TrendDavid Trend
Professor, Claire Trevor School of the Arts

David Trend is a Professor in the Department of Art at the University of California, Irvine. Before arriving at UC Irvine in 1997, Trend was dean of Creative Arts at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, where he developed multimedia partnerships with schools and corporations in Silicon Valley. Prior to that, Trend was graduate program coordinator in the Inter-Arts Center of San Francisco State University. During the past fifteen years, Trend has been a frequent consultant for foundations, state arts and humanities councils, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Trend’s teaching draws connections among the fields of cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and media analysis. Courses he has taught at UCI include Language and Vision in Everyday Life, A Culture Divided, Issues in Media Violence and Fear, Seminar in Cultural Activism and Radical Democracy, Issues in K-12 Education, and Media, Art, and Technology.

In recent years, David has played a vital role in supporting DTEI faculty development programs. He and Megan Linos, DTEI’s Director of Digital and Online Learning, received the 2022 Confronting Extremism through Community, Thriving and Wellness award, which supported 40+ faculty and graduate students cultivating a DEI-A culture in the classroom via the first Inclusive Teaching Institute in Spring 2023.