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To avoid pandemic fallout, equity must prevail in the postsecondary student experience

Free on-demand services that foster financial, social and academic equity can help universities improve student morale and retention.

BY MAMDOUH SHOUKRI | SEP 27 2021

When I first read the results of the Studiosity Student Research Survey, which canvassed over 1,000 postsecondary students across Canada during the pandemic, two numbers jumped out at me.

The first, that 74 per cent of respondents said the pandemic had a negative impact on their postsecondary experiences, I expected. After all, this is in line with the , which found more than a third of respondents were dissatisfied with various aspects of universities’ pandemic adaptations. Anecdotally, I’ve lost count of the times students have expressed frustration about the 2020-21 academic year. From living arrangements and commuting to social lives and employment, the past 18 months have been difficult for so many of them.

Despite all this, I still didn’t expect the Studiosity survey to reveal that 35 per cent of respondents were seriously considering dropping out of college or university altogether. While there’s no way to know how many of these students actually followed through on this, that number reveals the depths to which student morale had plunged.

A big part of the problem was, and still is, financial. Many postsecondary students rely on summer jobs or on working during their studies as a major source of income, and the job loss and reduction in job opportunities caused by the pandemic have taken a particularly heavy toll on students. According to Statistics Canada, the employment rate among students aged 20 to 24 fell by a staggering 23.6 percentage points, from 52.5 to 28.9 per cent, between February and April 2020. While the summer and fall of 2021 are likely to be less challenging as pandemic restrictions lift, it’s still far from business-as-usual in the student job market.

To improve student morale, and prevent dropping out from being considered as an option as we recover from the pandemic, universities must start delivering on-demand educational technology (EdTech) services, such as study support and mentoring, that foster financial, social and academic equity by being free to access, universally accessible, and focused on diversity and inclusion.

As a recent Deloitte report puts it, “EdTechs are focusing not just on growth and customer numbers, but also on ways to improve the equity of learning outcomes through technology. As it is often technology itself that creates barriers to equitable education – whether this is due to affordability, accessibility or digital literacy – it is technology, and the EdTechs that develop it, that have the greatest potential to drive equitable access and outcomes in a future of digitally-enabled and digitally-delivered learning.”

Free digitally-enabled and digitally-delivered services have been shown to improve the postsecondary experience. According to other surveys conducted by Studiosity, students who ask for help from the platform do an average of 1 GPA better than those who do not, with reported rates of “life satisfaction,” “happiness” and “low anxiety” among users being almost double that of non-users. I’m not at all surprised that student retention has improved by as much as 16 per cent at universities that have partnered with the Australia-based platform.

The good news for Canadian institutions is that the pandemic has given them a head start. For one thing, those that pivoted successfully to online learning have the proven digital infrastructure in place to reach a receptive audience. For another, one of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic was that equity-deserving students were able to access digital learning spaces and experiences that were not previously available.

Now it is up to Canadian institutions to build on this momentum by using digital channels to foster equity and community. As educational technology expert Chris Tisdell of the University of New South Wales points out, there are three dimensions to building equity and community among student populations. One is membership: “I feel like I’m a part of something.” Then there’s partnership: “We’re in this together, we’re learning together.” And last but not least, students taking ownership of their own learning in their own learning trajectory.

By ticking all three of these boxes, free on-demand digital learning and student support services are providing the right tools at exactly the right time.

To download the full research report, visit here.

Dr. Shoukri was the president and vice-chancellor of York University from 2007 to 2017, and now serves on the academic advisory board of Studiosity.

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