DEI and Empowering Students

min read

DEI is an important contributor to one of the themes of the 2019 Top 10 IT Issues: Empowering Students.

DEI and Empowering Students
Credit: Nirat.pix / Shutterstock

Each year EDUCAUSE members select Top 10 IT Issues for the coming year. These are the issues members anticipate will be the most important IT-related issues facing their institutions and higher education. From that list, EDUCAUSE identifies a primary focus and set of themes that encapsulate the state of our field. This year's focus is "The Student Genome Project" because in 2019 higher education is focused on organizing, standardizing, and safeguarding data so that we can use those data to address our most pressing priority: student success. The three themes for 2019 are Empowered Students, Trusted Data, and 21st-Century Business Strategies. This is one of a series of three Data Bytes blog posts exploring how another pressing priority of higher education and of EDUCAUSE—diversity, equity, and inclusion—pertains to each of the three themes of the 2019 Top 10 IT Issues.

Students pursue postsecondary education for a variety of reasons. For some, a college degree means greater opportunity along a career path. Others seek the exploration of ideas and concepts. And many students go to college because it's what's expected of them. However, at four-year institutions, only 60 percent of students graduate within six years, and at two-year institutions, barely 40 percent graduate with a certificate or associate's degree within 150 percent of normal time.

Student success technologies, powered by analytics and the capacity to leverage large amounts of data, have shown promise in increasing student engagement, learning, retention, and graduation. Through the iPASS (Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success) project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, EDUCAUSE awarded grants to nearly two dozen institutions to make significant changes in the way they approached advising. Through these technology-enabled advising initiatives, institutions were able to roll out newer approaches to degree planning, provide advisors just-in-time information about student progress, and identify early in a term when a student might be struggling, with the goal of proactively intervening with resources to help that student stay on track.

These initiatives are not as simple as deploying a technology tool. They require strategic, cross-functional efforts to understand and advance technology's role in optimizing the student experience toward completion. Indeed, a recent report conducted by the Association for Institutional Research (AIR), NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and EDUCAUSE makes the case for this kind of collaboration between institutional research, student affairs, and IT to enable professionals across departments to make data-informed decisions to maximize resources and better support students.

As we continue to address and influence student success, a similarly intentional, systematic approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within IT organizations on campus can promote student empowerment through a sense of belonging. The capacity of a student to develop a sense of belonging within the higher education institution is a critical factor determining student retention, and this can be accomplished by ensuring that students feel seen, feel heard, and are encouraged to think differently. (The other two blogs in this series address the ways in which DEI efforts reflect the Top 10 IT Issues themes of trusted data and 21st-century business strategies.)

Two of the Top 10 IT Issues directly reference the applications of technology to students' outcomes and experiences:

  1. Student Success: Serving as a trusted partner with other campus units to drive and achieve student success initiatives

  1. Student-Centered Institution: Understanding and advancing technology's role in optimizing the student experience (from applicants to alumni)

Feeling Seen

Applying principles of DEI to IT department staffing practices to create a community on campus that more closely reflects the demographic diversity of current and future generations is one way to help students feel seen. A staff that reflects the diversity of the student body can better understand the needs of underrepresented students. Students who see themselves in campus leaders and mentors will also be able to see themselves in a future that embraces who they are and whom they aspire to be.  As shown by Karen Osterman, students who experience a sense of belonging in educational environments are more motivated, more engaged in school and classroom activities, and more dedicated to school.

Cultivating and retaining a diverse workforce can be challenging; however, the benefits to a campus can outweigh the investment. For specific recommendations on cultivating an inclusive environment, see "How to Plug the Leaky Bucket: Retention Strategies for Maintaining a Diverse Workforce." The 2019 IT Workforce in Higher Education study suggests that IT organizations have made small gains in the inclusion of women and diverse ethnic groups; however, the makeup of today's IT workforce remains predominantly white and male. More, too, can be done to create an environment that is welcoming and responsive to those with disabilities. On the other hand, the LGBTQ representation in IT is considerably higher than among the general population.

Feeling Heard

Students who experience a sense of belonging by feeling seen are more likely to use their voice and feel heard. Creating a safe, inclusive space on campus for a diversity of viewpoints promotes self-expression and engagement. Breaking down barriers for traditionally marginalized communities empowers all students to find their voice, increasing the likelihood of success for all.

One success story in creating space for diverse voices is the Allegheny campus of the Community College of Allegheny County, where Phi Theta Kappa student leaders worked across the college to create a technology-enabled space that enhanced student engagement. They transformed an industrial and unwelcoming rotunda into a space that could, according to one of the faculty mentors on the project, "foster new relationships" so that "people will meet here to work, to study, to talk, perhaps to champion a cause that is important to them."

Creating an inclusive space can start with an awareness of the language we use. Explore this guide for inclusive language in technology fields or this handout for LGBTQ Do's and Don'ts.

Thinking Differently

An intentional approach to cultivating DEI on campus can also create space that challenges students to think differently. Bringing different perspectives together to solve problems can lead to enrichment for all and a solution with increased impact. In an environment of inclusion, students can learn about themselves and others, which enables growth.

One way to approach creating opportunities for students to think differently is by focusing on engagement, which George Kuh defines as students' involvement in educationally purposeful activities. High-Impact Practices (HIPs) "demand considerable time and effort, facilitate learning outside of the classroom, require meaningful interactions with faculty and students, encourage collaboration with diverse others, and provide frequent and substantive feedback. As a result, participation in these practices can be life-changing."

While many of the high-impact practices as originally described might seem like they fit best at a traditional, liberal arts campus, they can also be translated into other environments through the strategic use of technology. For example, a field experience based in a local community might be experienced through a virtual internship that may simultaneously build digital literacy skills. E-portfolios are another high-impact educational practice that has already been enabled by technology, but consider the emergent opportunities provided by a comprehensive learner record (CLR), which allows the student and institution to highlight a variety of campus activities including service, leadership, cultural competence, and other learning experiences beyond the classroom. Collaborative assignments and projects, another high-impact educational practice, might be reimagined as a virtual international exchange, which are small online courses that facilitate international social engagement.

Student success is necessarily a DEI initiative. A strategic approach that leverages technology to foster a sense of belonging for students from underserved populations can help them feel seen, feel heard, and think differently. Institutions can create inclusive spaces for all by intentionally cultivating and retaining a diverse workforce, raising awareness about the language we use with students and with each other, and considering innovative ways to deliver high-impact practices.

Kathe Pelletier is Director of Student Success Community Programs at EDUCAUSE.

© 2019 Kathe Pelletier. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.