In the rapidly-evolving landscape of higher education, technology is revolutionizing the way we teach and learn. WGU Labs’ recent College Innovation Network (CIN) Student EdTech Survey has brought to light the vital role that technology can play in boosting student success and leveling the playing field for students from historically excluded groups. For higher education leaders, this means embracing new teaching models that put students at the center and cater to the diverse needs of our learners. 

In this blog, we'll explore five strategies informed by the results of our CIN Student EdTech Survey to help institutions create inclusive and equitable digital learning experiences. 

1. Provide high-quality instruction in a variety of modalities 

First-generation students face more barriers to college access, enrollment, and completion relative to their peers. Our survey showed that first-generation learners were 10 percentage points more likely to be taking online courses and more interested in taking them in the future. To effectively serve first-generation students and other groups of learners who may benefit from the flexibility of online instruction, institutions should continue to expand online options. Providing high-quality online options will increase access to higher education to students who have not been well-served by traditional in-person models of learning and create more equitable opportunities for these groups. But to fully support first-generation students on their journey through higher education, institutions must also provide support and resources that will allow them to not only access college, but also to graduate and secure meaningful jobs.

2. Empower underserved learners to harness AI technologies

At WGU Labs, where we are simultaneously technology enthusiasts and skeptics, we are excited to imagine what broad scale adoption of these new tools could do for learning. Though we are less concerned about students using the technology to cheat, we are very concerned about the implications for equity in higher education. 

Our survey results show that, like nearly all new technologies, the adoption of these AI tools has been faster and greater in more privileged populations. In our sample, first-generation college students were enthusiastic about tech-enabled learning, but we also found that they were less likely than their peers to know about and have used new generative AI tools like ChatGPT (Read our in-depth brief: The Equity Dilemma: Will AI Tools in Education Widen the Gap?). While roughly half of continuing-generation students knew about ChatGPT, only 34% of first-generation college students did. Unless these knowledge and usage gaps are closed, first-generation students may leave college underprepared for future careers in which proficiency with AI tools is likely to become more important. Instead of banning or ignoring AI tools, institutions should empower diverse groups of learners to use them in productive ways. 

3. Prioritize EdTech that centers student needs

Our data show that many students feel fatigued by educational technology — 59% percent of respondents agreed that there are days that they don’t want to use educational technology because they need a break from it. When selecting EdTech tools, it's crucial to pick those that enhance the student experience. Decision-makers might not always be in the classroom, so it's essential to regularly seek feedback from students and faculty. Conducting tech audits can help identify redundant tools, address shortcomings, and incorporate emerging technologies that cater to student needs. This ongoing process prevents technology fatigue and underscores that technology is here to facilitate learning, not create barriers.

4. Leverage educational technology to improve online learning

Although over 80% of students in our sample found online courses effective, there is room for additional improvement. Educational technology, when thoughtfully integrated, can create engaging, personalized, digital learning environments that benefit all students. Our research shows that students view EdTech as a valuable addition to their learning experience. For example, 74% of students agreed that educational technology helps them more effectively learn course material. To ensure effective learning experiences in all course modalities, including online, institutions should harness student-centered educational technology. However, this must be done thoughtfully, with ample feedback from students and faculty to avoid overwhelming students with additional technology. 

5. Revamp institutional approaches to student support resources 

The shift to tech-enabled instruction won't be successful unless students have access to the support they need to complete their degrees. Our data clearly shows that students are not fully utilizing the resources available to them, but online access can help bridge this gap. For example, less than half of students in our sample reported using in-person student support services, but 66% reported using online student support services. 

We also found that students, especially first-generation college students, are more likely to use online resources compared to in-person ones. Offering resources in various formats is crucial to ensure equal access. However, merely providing online options won't suffice. Modernizing resources should go beyond enabling technology and address barriers like student awareness and the relevance of available resources.

The Future of Tech-Enabled Learning

As higher education continues its tech-driven transformation, understanding how students from various backgrounds experience this transition will be critical. Our survey reveals that students, especially first-generation college students, are excited about the integration of technology into the learning environment. However, tackling challenges related to AI technology adoption, technology fatigue, online instruction, and support services is vital to prevent students from historically excluded groups from being left behind.

Download the full report here.