The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made digital literacy more urgent than ever on college campuses. Some institutions scrambled to update their digital communication tools for remote learning. Even better-prepared institutions had to ditch the training wheels to continue pursuing student learning objectives in the face of unprecedented times.
By now, remote learning and nonverbal communication with educators and peers have become routine for students of all backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or fair. Students enter the higher education environment with unequal communication abilities yet are graded on how effectively they can communicate in writing.
In addition, not all students have the resources needed to operate in this new paradigm. While 95 percent of households with an annual income of $150,000 or greater have broadband access, only 71 percent of households making $25,000-$50,000 have similar access. That number falls to 51 percent for households making under $25,000 annually. Researchers call this phenomenon the digital divide, and college administrators striving for greater equity have a responsibility to take it seriously.
Consider these three ways to help students communicate effectively and thrive equitably in a rapidly digitizing education system.
Treat the challenge as an opportunity
One unexpected outcome of the pandemic is that students are writing more than ever. This can be challenging for students and educators, but there’s a distinct silver lining: With more written communication comes more teachable moments and opportunities to sharpen this critical skill.
Between writing more emails, sending more instant messages, and even logging on to Zoom for class, the typical learning day looks more and more like the typical working day. This environment allows faculty to model clear, effective, professional communication more frequently and facilitate meaningful discussions about the importance of communication skills in both academic and professional settings.
As expectations for student writing skills increased in the pandemic, a major gap emerged. Research from psychologists at Arcadia University found that BIPOC students have experienced greater emotional stress and felt more pressure to drop out or postpone their academic pursuits during the early-pandemic years. While some students may adapt and rise to the occasion more easily—for instance, a nontraditional student with professional work experience—others will need additional support and resources to meet the challenge.
Higher education institutions must ensure students from all backgrounds have the support they need to communicate their ideas and knowledge clearly and effectively. Administrators can start by identifying institution-wide communication gaps and evaluating the writing support students currently have available. From there, it’s important to identify areas where the institution can improve and evaluate the technology solutions and other tools available to address potential inequities.
Expand the communication conversation beyond English and the humanities
It’s always been true that writing is a cross-disciplinary skill that all students must develop to succeed. It’s even more true now that many employers have adopted hybrid or fully remote working models for the long term. Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 72.7 percent of managers surveyed want candidates with strong written communication skills.
During widespread remote learning brought on by the pandemic, educators in the sciences found that writing assignments can be a valuable way to build students’ critical thinking skills and improve scientific reasoning. Scholars call this practice writing to learn: when writing becomes a tool for teaching complex concepts rather than an end in itself. This well-rounded approach to education can help students transition to their careers, especially those in fields like STEM, where writing skills aren’t typically a central focus. No matter what field they plan to pursue, written communication skills will be essential to their future success.
Encouraging better communication within all academic departments ensures students who focus their studies outside English and the humanities don’t miss out on crucial learning opportunities.
Don’t assume students are “digital natives”: Teach the tool
Introducing new communication tools like Grammarly can be a boon to equity efforts. But it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone comes from a level playing field of technology access and proficiency. Resources should be available to help students make the best use of new digital tools.
Providing instructional materials such as video tutorials and assistance from university staff and faculty can help close the gap. It’s also important to ensure those materials are accessible—for instance, adding closed captions to videos and alt text to any digital images included in the resources. Effectively teaching the tool is as important as choosing the right tool in the first place. Meeting students where they are means not just providing the resources, but being proactive about student outreach. “Let them come to us” is not an equitable approach. For example, you might offer both scheduled instructional sessions and archived transcripts of those sessions.
Provide equitable writing support with Grammarly for Education
Tools like Grammarly can help by offering students 24/7 writing support to meet increased written communication expectations. Grammarly offers students writing assistance that goes far beyond simple corrections for their mistakes. It actively assists and enhances student learning by explaining the rationale behind the mistake and how each suggestion improves their writing.
Over time, students pick up and internalize those nuances of language and become more effective communicators. With real-time suggestions on assignments, emails, notes, and more, 99 percent of students say Grammarly increases their confidence in their written material. When every student can write with clarity and confidence regardless of their previous English proficiency, past educational experience, or ability to afford outside tutoring or support, institutions can create a more equitable playing field for all.
The benefits translate to faculty as well. Instructors can improve learning outcomes and support writing skills institution-wide. Educators can grade more equitably when they can focus on the ideas and concepts students are conveying instead of minor missteps in grammar, usage, and the like.
To continue exploring how effective communication support helps create a more equitable learning environment for all, read our latest ebook and learn five steps higher education can take to level the playing field.