Anticipating and Addressing Challenges Related to Technology in Developmental Education

By Rebecca Natow, Vikash Reddy, and Markeisha Grant

College students in a computer classroom

This post originally appeared on EdSurge on October 16, 2017.

Colleges and universities in the United States are increasingly integrating technology into developmental education, both in response to state policy mandates as well as their own desire to improve student outcomes and conserve resources. Policymakers in Tennessee and Texas, for example, have explicitly encouraged the use of technology in developmental education reform. Instructional software products are commonly used to provide course content, and technologies that help instructors and counselors manage courses and advise students are also used widely.

In research just released by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR), our team investigated the educational technologies that institutions use in developmental education and the common challenges that they face when implementing the technologies. The research, part of a larger study into the programs and practices related to developmental education assessment and instruction, included interviews with 127 people from 42 colleges and 41 higher education systems across the United States.

What Types of Technology Do Institutions Use in Developmental Education Programming?

Our interviewees described numerous examples of technology use in developmental education instruction and student support. These uses can be categorized as instructional technology, course management technology, and student support technology.

Instructional technology provides the content of the course to students, as well as assessment mechanisms and opportunities for students to practice and apply the material. Instructional technology may take the form of software that can be used to complete homework assignments or serve as a primary content-delivery and assessment system in fully online, hybrid, or emporium-style classes. (Emporium classes take place in computer labs where students work on individualized computerized lessons and instructors circulate the room to provide assistance as needed.) Online videos that provide relevant content (e.g., Khan Academy) also fall within the category of instructional technology, as do online textbooks and “open educational resources,” materials that are available online for free or at a low cost.

Course management technology organizes and presents course structure and materials on an electronic platform. This includes the provision of electronic access to the course syllabus, reading and viewing materials, assessments, the course calendar, grades, course evaluations, discussion boards, and other important course materials.

Student support technology supports students’ academic performance. One common form of student support technology provides round-the-clock remote access to academic tutors. Another form of the technology is “early warning” or “early alert” programs, which monitor how students are doing in class, identify nonacademic impediments to student success, and target students in danger of failure for extra counseling or other assistance.

What Challenges Have Institutions Faced When Implementing Technology in Developmental Education?

Many of our respondents described challenges they encountered when implementing technology into developmental education programming. Despite their reputation as tech-savvy digital natives, students—along with other end users such as faculty members—frequently had problems with the technologies. Reducing or removing in-person interaction in the educational process was also cited as a difficulty. For many, in-person engagement was a positive or necessary aspect of developmental education that had been eroded by technology.

High costs and a lack of institutional resources to support effective technology integration were also identified as challenges. With myriad pressures on institutional budgets, some college personnel reported going without a desired technology or sometimes choosing an alternate technology with a lower cost. Some respondents also described high ancillary costs, such as those associated with maintaining computer labs or providing training regarding a new technology.

Another concern was technology reliability—sometimes it was unavailable to users, even if only temporarily. For low-income students and users (including institutions) located in rural areas, Internet access is still not available everywhere. Temporary disruptions due to such incidents as power or Internet outages, or users’ loss of access codes, were also reported as challenges.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Within developmental education, technology’s role is growing; but this growth is not without its challenges. In order to ensure that students and faculty are able to use new technology successfully, vendors and institutions should provide more robust and ongoing training for all end-users. For example, faculty professional development might focus more on how faculty can address challenges like helping students to progress through course lessons in instructional settings that provide more flexible pacing like the emporium model. Relatedly, higher education leaders may consider mandating training for students on how to use technology to advance their studies, such as utilizing the full functionality of course management technology or effectively using the help functions within instructional software. This study found that the difficulty that students have with technology presented a key challenge for some institutions, so campus leaders and policymakers should not assume that today’s college students are naturally well versed in the use of technology or ready to work as independently as some technology may allow.

Rebecca Natow is an assistant professor at Hofstra University and a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. Vikash Reddy is a policy analyst at the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley and a research affiliate at CCRC. Markeisha Grant is a research associate at CCRC.