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Aligning Practice with Mission: Digital Learning Strategy at Fort Lewis College

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A digital learning strategy can help institutions reconcile a tradition of high-touch, in-person learning with the opportunities of digital learning.

Case Study
Credit: Muslianshah Masrie / Shutterstock.com © 2021

Institutional Profile

Fort Lewis College (FLC) is a public liberal arts college nestled in the scenic, mountainous landscape of Durango, CO. The FLC campus is situated on the ancestral land and territory of the Nuuchiu (Ute) people, who were forcibly removed by the United States government. This land is also connected to the communal and ceremonial spaces of the Jicarilla Abache (Apache), Pueblos of New Mexico, Hopi Sinom (Hopi), and Diné (Navajo) Nations. With a student body that includes 58% students of color and 46% first-generation students, FLC serves and supports a diverse student population. The institution’s support of Native American students is particularly noteworthy, as FLC awards more bachelor’s degrees to Native American and Alaska Native students than any other four-year school and is designated as one of only thirteen Native American—serving non-Tribal institutions in the United States.

The Challenge/Opportunity

With the accelerating adoption of digital forms of teaching and learning in higher education over the past several years, institutions now face important questions about what the future of education is going to be and what longer-term investments and plans in digital learning will be needed to thrive in that future. Critical to addressing these questions, institutions must develop a digital learning strategy (DLS) that will ensure systematic, institution-wide coordination and alignment as they seek to make these investments and develop these plans.

In recent QuickPoll research conducted by EDUCAUSE in partnership with a member-led DLS working group, respondents clearly signaled that DLSs are still an emerging—and not a very widespread—practice in higher education.Footnote1 Even among those institutions that are at some stage of DLS implementation, the focus to date has primarily been on shoring up technological systems, leaving much work still to be done aligning the DLS to the institution’s mission, culture, and workforce.

The current state of digital learning at FLC in some ways reflects these general patterns. While leadership at FLC recognizes the benefits of digital learning for pandemic-era and post-pandemic education, implementing a systematic and long-term strategy is not without its challenges. A small liberal arts institution that averages only nineteen students per class, FLC has built its identity and culture around being a high-touch, in-person college. Students arrive at FLC expecting (and even because of) an emphasis on face-to-face learning, and the faculty have honed teaching practices well-suited to those types of course experiences. A long-term shift to more online or distance models of education, then, would require sensitivity to and accommodations for these deeply ingrained elements of the institution’s identity and culture.

In tension with these preferences for in-person learning, though, is a recognition that the FLC student body would benefit in many ways from a more flexible, hybrid model of education. Nearly 50% of the students at FLC are Indigenous, and many of these students are balancing college commitments with important roles in their families and communities that demand time and presence away from campus. FLC also serves large numbers of first-generation students, as well as low-income students who must balance college with work obligations. For many of the institution’s students, then, more flexibility in when and how attendance and coursework are managed would help alleviate certain life stressors and remove barriers to success.

Prior to the pandemic, FLC did, like many other institutions, have a distance education (DE) strategy to provide flexible options for students. The DE strategy focused on increasing online offerings of general education courses with multiple sections. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, forced all FLC faculty to shift their courses online. Given the sudden and unexpected nature of this shift, however, the institution temporarily suspended its requirement that faculty teaching online receive training in online teaching. The gaps in faculty development and training, along with the digital divide for students, have exacerbated declines in student success in distance courses and in success among Indigenous students.

The student success data throughout the pandemic and even now has also shown that without a comprehensive digital learning strategy, distance courses will not optimize student success. What’s needed is a DLS that includes elements beyond modality, such as student support, digital access, and student and faculty development.

Process

The challenges facing FLC in building a more comprehensive DLS for the future are not insurmountable, and the institution is poised to take a few critical steps in addressing these challenges over the next several years. Jennifer Rider, director of FLC’s Center for Teaching & Learning, highlighted three key areas of focus for the institution now and in the near term.

  1. Building bridges. Initial steps in developing a comprehensive DLS require new partnerships and collaboration within departments and across the institution. With buy-in and support from all levels of institutional leadership and across all key functional areas and departments at the institution, the DLS becomes more than simply the work of one unit or person and can be truly integrated into the institution’s larger strategy and decision-making.

    Aside from these internal collaborations, Rider is also focused on developing external collaborations with peer professionals and institutions wrestling with the same challenges and opportunities in digital learning. Along with several other EDUCAUSE members, Rider has joined a DLS Working Group focused on developing a shared definition of “digital learning strategy” and an actionable framework for practitioners who are seeking to implement a DLS at their own institution but who, much like those at FLC and many other institutions, find existing resources and practices in this area lacking or underdeveloped. There is strength in community and in opportunities for peer-based sharing and learning, and Rider is hopeful that a community is beginning to emerge around DLS practice.

  2. Data analytics and governance. For FLC, the next leg of the DLS journey will see departments and faculty shifting from personal preferences and opinions about digital learning to actively engaging with data about their courses and students to enable more data-informed decisions about when and how digital learning should be used. By analyzing student success data across different types of learning modalities, and particularly by taking a look at first-year and introductory courses and analyzing success rates for certain segments of the student population, leaders at FLC can be better positioned to identify barriers to learning and success for hybrid and online modalities and to better support students and understand their needs.

    Critical to these data-informed practices is alignment across the institution to a shared vision and goals. Internal shared governance around digital learning can help ensure consistency and efficacy in when and how digital modalities are used and can also help ensure all departments and programs are making data-informed decisions about their online and distance education offerings.

  3. Faculty and student support. Long-term success in implementing a DLS will hinge on whether faculty and students are trained and supported in understanding how to effectively engage in digital learning modalities and have access to the technologies and services undergirding those modalities. At FLC, some of these supports will be structural. Rider is proposing a shift in the peer tutoring program from a centralized model to one more distributed and course-based so that hybrid and online students in particular have more immediate and direct access to the tutoring they need. Certain data services and supports need to be put in place as well so that faculty understand how to use their student and course data and have easy access to data insights through new dashboard tools.

    Other supports will focus on equity. Many students at FLC struggle to bridge the digital divide and gain reliable access to the devices and networks needed to engage in hybrid and online learning modalities. Rider is working with IT to propose changes to the institution’s laptop rental program, for example, to make laptops free to any student who needs one. Similarly, a broadband reimbursement program for any student struggling to access and afford reliable off-campus internet would help ensure that cost isn’t a barrier for students in getting online and accessing their courses and work remotely. Additionally, a new summer course design institute will be offered to faculty who teach introductory gateway courses, focusing on equity, accessibility, and high-quality hybrid course design.

These won’t be inexpensive solutions, of course, and FLC is facing the same enrollment and funding challenges many other small and rural institutions are facing. Rider is currently exploring promising grant-funding opportunities to help support these initiatives, recognizing that much of the work will require new staff and better infrastructure and that FLC on its own may not have everything it needs. “It does take institutional resources and funds to eliminate those barriers for students,” Rider said, “And grant-funding would help us do that.”

Outcomes

One of the key takeaways from the digital learning strategy QuickPoll was that DLS efforts in higher education will need to focus on the bigger institutional picture.Footnote2 A DLS is much more than simply implementing new technologies or offering courses online. It’s a piece of the institution’s overall vision and mission and should support institutional goals for teaching and learning and student success.

Equitable access to education and success for underserved students is a defining feature of the mission and culture of FLC. When asked what success in implementing a DLS at FLC would look like, Rider expressed hope that high-quality, equitable hybrid and online learning would help close the achievement gap for first-generation and low-income students, as well as for the Indigenous students the college serves. In particular, closing the achievement gap for first-year and introductory courses would indicate to Rider that the institution is serving and supporting its students well and that students are receiving effective and equitable access to education.

What will it take for higher education institutions to realize those outcomes? According to Rider, flexibility will be critical for the future of higher education—flexibility in how we structure degree and credentialing models, flexibility in how we think about course delivery and learning outcomes, and flexibility in the ways we serve our students and meet their needs. “I don’t know what higher education looks like in ten years. No one knows,” Rider shared. “But we have to be in a more flexible state, and we have to be more flexible for our students in providing the type of education and support that they need.”

Notes

  1. Nicole Muscanell, “EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Transforming Teaching and Learning with a Digital Learning Strategy,” EDUCAUSE Review, August 22, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.

Jennifer Rider is Director of the Center for Teaching & Learning at Fort Lewis College.

Mark McCormack is Senior Director of Research and Insights at EDUCAUSE.

© 2022 Jennifer Rider and Mark McCormack. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.

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