Colleges and universities in the United States are increasingly integrating technology into developmental education programs, which are designed to bring underprepared students up to college level. The uptick in tools used to address challenges with developmental education arrives both in response to state policy mandates as well as institutions’ 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.
In research released by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR), our team investigated the educational technologies that colleges and universities use in developmental education and the common challenges that they face during implementation. 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?
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 course content, 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 or blended online classes. Online videos (e.g. Khan Academy) also fall within the category of instructional technology, as do digital 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.
In general, colleges are using many of the same technologies in developmental education as they do to provide instruction and supports for college-level students. Our interviews did find a heavier emphasis on technology in some areas, including in teaching math, and an increased use of technology in summer bridge programs that aim to bring students up to college level quickly, as well as in test preparation for placement exams. But overall, institutions and higher education systems have tended not to push beyond the types of technology that the colleges are already using elsewhere.
Challenges institutions face when implementing tech in developmental ed
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.
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. Technology is often seen as a way to provide students with more personalized learning. But colleges must keep in mind that some developmental education students have been found to do better in in-person courses with more structured engagement. To address that, faculty professional development might focus more on how faculty members can help students to progress through course lessons in instructional settings that provide more flexible pacing.
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.