Breaking New Ground: A Conversation with Jessica Williams [podcast]

min read

Every Learner Everywhere Director Jessica Rowland Williams talks about the impacts of COVID-19, as well as ELE's current work and her vision for the future.

green plant growing up through dry, parched earth
Credit: ifong / © 2020

Recently, Malcolm Brown, director of learning initiatives for EDUCAUSE, had an opportunity to catch up with Jessica Williams, the newly appointed director of Every Learner Everywhere (ELE), a network of twelve partner organizations seeking to work with postsecondary institutions to promote student academic success. Their conversation ranged across a variety of topics, including the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having across higher education, Jessica's vision for ELE going forward, and the network's unique focus on low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color.

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Malcolm Brown
Director of Learning Initiatives

Jessica Williams
Every Learner Everywhere

Malcolm Brown: Greetings. I'm Malcolm Brown, director of Learning Initiatives at EDUCAUSE, and welcome to this podcast which we are posting to the EDUCAUSE Transforming Higher Ed Blog, a community forum on teaching and learning in higher education. I am delighted to be joined today by Jessica Williams who is director of the organization Every Learner Everywhere.

Malcolm Brown: Every Learner Everywhere brings together 12 partner organizations to help colleges and universities navigate the rapidly evolving digital learning landscape. Prior to assuming the directorship, Jessica served as a project director with the University Innovation Alliance and also as a project director in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Student Success at Georgia State University. Jessica, thanks for being here and welcome to this podcast.

Jessica Williams: Thank you, Malcolm. It's so good to be here.

Malcolm Brown: Okay. I'm thinking that this interview is going to go a lot differently than, say, had we had it six weeks ago.

Jessica Williams: Yeah.

Malcolm Brown: When we wouldn't need to have been hibernating I think in a cave or something like that. Not to note that we are witnessing one of the most unique chapters in the history of higher education.

Malcolm Brown: So let's start here and maybe focus on some of the short-term effects and impacts. From where you sit, what do you see as the more significant short-term consequences of this virus crisis?

Jessica Williams: Yeah, so we are really in uncharted territory here and I have a very personal connection to what's happening partly because my younger brother was in his freshman year in college and so he was forced to come home. And so, I think that our students are really struggling. This is a tough time. It's a tough time for our students, it's a tough time for our faculty and administrators.

Jessica Williams: Some of the short-term consequences that I see are, one, just loss of student momentum and progress. A lot of our students are discouraged. A lot of our students are really trying to figure out how to balance the remote learning that they're launching into for many of them starting this week or started last week. And as a result, there may be some negative effects on performance in the current semester. I've heard that a lot of students are worried about grades, not doing as well as they normally would have. Some of our institutions are moving to pass/fail. And I've heard that that poses a unique problem for a lot of our students who are interested in applying to professional schools and needing that letter grade for qualifications for their applications.

Jessica Williams: I've also heard that a lot of students are afraid that they're going to be labeled the coronavirus kids and their grades are going to be looked at as not real or not authentic because they didn't have that classroom experience. And so, I think those are some of just the immediate consequences that a lot of our students are facing. And then of course there are the issues around equity and access. A lot of our students don't have access to internet. Some of our students don't have the technology devices that are needed to keep up with their remote learning courses. And so that's going to have implications in the short-term on how well some of our students are able to perform.

Malcolm Brown: Yes indeed. Okay. So those are the short-term things that are swirling around as issues for the entire community. Let's now think about the longer term because I think one of the interesting questions about this crisis is what are the longterm consequences? So this crisis has without a doubt had an impact on how we will be thinking about the future post-secondary teaching and learning. Would you care to speculate on what you see as maybe the longterm impacts, those effects or impacts that will continue once the immediate crisis has passed us by?

Jessica Williams: Yeah, so these are some of the larger concerns that the field is starting to grapple with. And one of those things is just poor retention after the current semester. A lot of institutions are thinking beyond the current semester and what happens next semester, how many students are going to be able to come back. And that's not necessarily even due to academic distress, but even just the economic hardships that we are seeing or that may be coming our way in the months to come.

Jessica Williams: Other concerns that we have of course for the longterm implications of this virus include the increased burden for students, particularly students that are low income or students of color or students who are first generation students who may not be as well-resourced as some of our other students. There is a huge risk of only further exacerbating the inequities that already exist in higher education because of the ways that we're having to make these shifts in learning styles. So those are some of the longterm impacts that I see.

Malcolm Brown: Yeah, and it's interesting. Again, if you would care just to speculate just a little bit because you read sometimes articles and blog posts about people espousing that higher ed has been somewhat lax and moving into an entirely digital environment. And certainly your organization, everyone or anywhere, is helping higher ed to explore that in terms of teaching and learning. But it sounds like this sudden thrust into the digital space has both challenges as well as advantages to it. Would you agree with that?

Jessica Williams: Absolutely. I think that there's a lot of potential and there's a lot of evidence-based research that's already being produced that show that when you implement digital tools and you incorporate digital technology into the classroom, that there is the potential for closing achievement gaps. I think one of the caveats to that is that there has to be a high quality implementation with a focus on equity. And that takes a lot of time. That takes a lot of thought. And that takes a lot of planning. And that's something that our organization is very focused on supporting institutions in, but that's not something that you can do overnight. And so, I think, as we move forward, this tool, right, remote education is really only going to be effective if we begin to think about how we can develop a robust system for delivering high quality remote learning at scale. It's not just about snapping and putting something into place quickly.

Malcolm Brown: Yes, it seems like you're getting at the point that I hear being discussed where people distinguish between this rapid shift that we're seeing in terms of trying to complete the current semester as sometimes called remote teaching as opposed to what you could call true or effective online learning. Is that a distinction that you would ascribe to?

Jessica Williams: That's a very important distinction. I think online learning refers to a course or a series of lessons that were designed from the very start to take place online. They were designed with that in mind, they were structured from that vantage point. What we're doing now in remote learning or remote teaching, these are courses that were originally designed to be taught in-person that are very rapidly having to move to an online format. And I think that's an important distinction because I think a lot of times we look at literature or research around online learning and think that it applies for the remote learning that's happening right now. And those are two completely different things.

Malcolm Brown: Indeed. Okay, so now let's turn now to your organization, Every Learner Everywhere, or perhaps we can call it ELE for short. Now, it may be the case not everybody listening to this knows or has heard about this organization, so would you care to explain a bit about what ELE is and it does and perhaps and touch on its history?

Jessica Williams: Of course, I'd love to do that. So, Every Learner Everywhere, also known as ELE, was founded in 2017 and it's a network of 12 partner organizations that collaborate with higher education institutions to improve student outcomes through innovative teaching strategies.

Jessica Williams: So there are a lot of areas that we focus on, but some of the main areas include identifying and applying best practices for the transition from in-person to online course delivery, designing criteria for digital learning tools, analyzing the impact on student equity and success as a result of implementing digital learning strategies. We also focus on providing professional development opportunities to help instructors improve their delivery of online courses and digital learning tools. And we also guide faculty through how to keep students at the center of their educational experiences when they're teaching and learning either online or using digital learning tools.

Malcolm Brown: So one of the things that is unique about ELE is that it's placing a particular emphasis on addressing issues such as inclusion and equity. Would you care to comment on that?

Jessica Williams: Yes, absolutely. So, as you said, ELE is unique because we do have a focus on students that are low income, first generation, and students of color. And I think as a student of color myself at one point, this is something that's really near and dear to my heart because I think that there are unique sets of challenges that face students that are "non-traditional." And I think that there are huge equity gaps that exist and have existed for a long time within higher ed. And now we have new tools, digital technologies that have... And there's a significant body of research that shows that implementing these tools in the classroom can really improve results for students who have been historically underserved. And so, I think ELE's mission is to leverage these tools and leverage the way we change teaching in the classroom to begin to close some of those achievement gaps. And we're really excited about that work.

Malcolm Brown: Okay. Maybe it would make sense at this point to explore just exactly how ELE is going to set about doing this. Is it a consulting organization that any campus could come and get assistance from? How do you see that going forward?

Jessica Williams: That's a good question. So, currently we work with JFF and Frontier Set intermediaries, and these are groups of organizations that are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ELE is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And so those are the groups of institutions that we serve in the sense of delivering technical assistance.

Jessica Williams: So technical assistance includes mentoring and coaching and providing workshops and conducting site visits. In addition to the technical assistance, we also serve as a hub for resources. So we have a website currently called The Solve Website. And you can access that website through the ELE website, And on that website you will find resources that would help your institution to implement digital technologies, digital tools, adaptive CourseWare at your own institutions.

Malcolm Brown: And Jessica, you mentioned two groups of campus organizations, JFF and Frontier Set. Could you say a little bit more about that? Because I'm not sure everybody would know exactly what those are and what types of institutions are in them.

Jessica Williams: Yeah. So JFF is known as jobs... It's an acronym for Jobs for the Future. And so that's an organization that primarily serves two year institutions. And then the Frontier Set is a set of intermediaries or sets of intermediaries that, like I said, were funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and are exemplars in the field for novel, new, exciting teaching and learning practices and are all institutions that are working to close achievement gaps in their own respects.

Malcolm Brown: All right, Jessica. So let's maybe go back to where we started this conversation with the crisis with the virus. Has this crisis in what you've seen transpire in these past few weeks changed your thinking at all about ELE's role in the future?

Jessica Williams: Absolutely. I think this crisis has permanently changed the way we think about teaching and learning and will be a Lynch Point, a turning point for our field and how we think about access for our students. It's really motivated us at Every Learner Everywhere to accelerate and amplify our work so that we can help the field to ensure that students of all backgrounds can succeed under any circumstances.

Jessica Williams: And so, there are three areas that we plan to focus our attention going forward in our support for institutions. The first is in exploring and planning. We think it's going to be important for institutions to identify tools and learn how to use them effectively. We also feel like there is going to be a significant need for institutions to start thinking about planning, how they will achieve continuity in the educational experience. Because while this is a crisis that took us by surprise, things like this happen all the time. And I think this is a crisis that's happening to all of us together, but I think we take for granted the fact that crises happen to people all the time in their own lives individually, death of family members, sickness, illness, job loss. These things happen. How do we ensure, how do we as a higher ed community ensure that students are going to be able to learn no matter what happens to them.

Jessica Williams: I think the second bucket of work that ELE will focus on in the future is design and implementation. Like I said earlier, there's a great deal of forethought that goes into implementation of high quality online learning, remote learning, and digital fools. And while this semester may not have been anyone's best opportunity to implement effectively, we know that this crisis isn't necessarily going to end at the end of this semester. Right? And there will still need to be opportunities for us as a field to think about how do we, one, learn from what happened in this current semester, but then how do we start planning and designing and thinking about implementing better remote learning experiences for our students as we go forward.

Jessica Williams: And then the last thing that we're going to focus on through ELE is optimizing and scaling. So how do we maintain a student-centered learning environment? How do we really optimize the experience for our students? How do we optimize the equity within our courses? And then also how do we scale? How do we continue to scale this out? Unfortunately, we're forced to scale way faster than I think anyone ever thought they would ever have to. But as we move forward, we'll have opportunities to make things better. And I hope that ELE can help institutions all over our country to do that.

Malcolm Brown: Okay. That runs me to the end of my prepared questions. Jessica, is there any other question you would like asked for this podcast? Any points you want to cover? And I could just-

Jessica Williams: There was one other point that I wanted to cover when we talk about the equity piece. I'll just say it. I think that... We at ELE have been saying this for a long time. We know that traditional teaching and learning is failing students. Traditional teaching and learning, traditional classroom setup leaves students... We lose a lot of students that way. And I think that this crisis is putting a spotlight on that fact. And I think this is just an incredible opportunity for us to rethink how we teach students, we rethink how students are learning and what they need to learn, and I'm very hopeful that the incredible partners that we have through ELE will help institutions to support that work and we'll be stronger as an education system because of it.

Malcolm Brown: Great. Well, Jessica, thank you so much for taking time from your very busy schedule to talk with me today.

Jessica Williams: Well, thank you for having me.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.

The Transforming Higher Ed blog editors welcome submissions. Please contact us at [email protected].

Jessica Williams is Director of Every Learner Everywhere.

Malcolm Brown is Director of Learning Initiatives for EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Jessica Williams and Malcolm Brown. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.