Higher Education Webinar: Navigating Digital Equity

Monday, October 17, 2022
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President, Community College of Aurora


Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Academic and Higher Education Webinars and Renewing America

Mordecai Ian Brownlee, president of the Community College of Aurora, will lead the conversation on navigating the digital equity gap in higher education.


FASKIANOS: Welcome to CFR’s Higher Education Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Mordecai Ian Brownlee with us today to talk about the digital equity gap in higher education. Dr. Brownlee is president of the Community College of Aurora in Colorado. He also teaches for Lamar University in the College of Education and Human Development. Dr. Brownlee publishes frequently and serves as a columnist for EdSurge. He has been featured on a number of national platforms including by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine as a new school leader representing the next generation of college presidents, and he was most recently appointed to serve on the board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges.

So, Dr. Brownlee, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us. I thought we could begin by having you define digital equity and give us an overview of the digital equity gap in higher education, and I know you are going to share a presentation with us so we look forward to seeing that on screen.

BROWNLEE: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the opportunity to the Council on Foreign Relations. Just thank you all so much.

And to answer that question as we talk about digital equity, it’s the assurance of ensuring that all have access to the information technology available and to have the capacity to engage in society and productive citizenship. And so we’ll talk about that and let me just start sharing the screen and we’ll jump right into it.

All right. Here we go.

So, once again, thank you all for the opportunity, again, to the Council of Foreign Relations for this opportunity to talk about navigating digital equity. Bringing greetings on behalf of the Community College of Aurora here in Aurora, Colorado. And let’s just jump right into it.

You know, as we talk about defining this work, how to navigate this work, we have to first understand the work, and to understand digital equity we must first understand the digital divide.

And so, you know, as we talked about the digital divide at the beginning of the pandemic it, certainly, was dealing with the voice and mindset, the texture and tone, of accessibility and being able to engage in learning throughout the pandemic and, first of all, I would say as educators it’s so critical that even as we are, quote/unquote, “coming out of the pandemic” that we still acknowledge part of the challenges that are happening across the country and across the world in regards to accessibility—equitable accessibility to information technology, to the tools, and to have the capacity to not only learn but, certainly, engage in the economy and society.

So as we talk about digital equity, we must understand the digital divide and so let’s kind of define that. One of my favorite definitions for the digital divide defined comes from the National League of Cities and they say the digital divide is the gap between individuals who have access to computers, high-speed internet, and the skills to use them, and those who do not.

There’s two critical components as we talk about digital equity that I want to call out with the digital divide definition here. One is access. The other is skill. Access and skill. So as we think about equity and just think about how do we level the playing field, how do we close the gap on accessibility and skill attainment to engage.

And it’s not just being able to access and that’s the other—I think the complexity here as we think about the term equity because just because I provide you the computer, right—and we found this during the pandemic—just because I provide you the computer do you even have broadband access? And if you have broadband access do you have dependable sustainable broadband access?

And then if you have sustainable broadband access, are you skilled to not only learn but and engage through this instrument and tool, and that in itself is where we have found there to be challenges as we think throughout the pandemic and, certainly, beyond the pandemic on what we must do to close the gap for equity and the digital divide. So digital divide provides that access, skill. Equity will then take us deeper into this work.

Here are key factors I want to call out in regards to how we must eradicate or address these challenges, these factors, in order to close the gap on the digital divide.

Number one, what we have seen through research—and digitalresponsibility.org has done a great job of calling this out—number one, age-related issues as we think about the various generations that are engaged in society and still present in society.

We have digital natives. I consider myself to be a digital native as a millennial. But this is very different than previous generations that may not have had the proper training and skill and their jobs do not have them engaging, utilizing these tools and instruments on a regular basis and so that in itself has created some challenges.

And, again, there is, certainly, all those that are outliers and those among the generations that have been able to engage in these instruments and tools. However, it is truly a fact through research that age-related issues have been a part of this challenge, more specifically, speaking to our older population.

Socioeconomic factors—have to talk about it. I think about it, especially in the higher education space. Our tribal institutions is where I’ve heard throughout the pandemic some of our most severe challenges that have been experienced in regards to the digital divide.

One of the stories that I heard that just breaks my heart—I remember the first time I heard it, it truly had me in tears—we were at the height of the pandemic at this point and what we were learning is in one particular tribal community in order for those students to complete—these are young K-12 students—in order for them to complete their assignments they had elders and community members of that tribe that would walk the students up to the highest point on the mountain within that particular tribal territory just to be able to pick up an internet signal, and they were able to do this when there was not as much traffic on that internet broadband access—that grid, if you will.

And so those students were having to do their work—their homework—between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. in the morning. Very interesting reality—unfortunate reality. We, certainly, have to come up with the solutions to addressing this. This in itself is part of that digital divide conversation.

Geographic causes—it depends on where you are in the country. I remember at one point in time I was teaching and served the University of Charleston out of Charleston, West Virginia, and for those that are familiar with that part of the country in the Appalachia, I would have my students that were having to use their own cell phones in order to complete their assignments and upload their assignments.

They did not have either, in some cases, the actual tools or accessibility, would have to drive in to more populated spaces to pick up a signal. This was impacting their learning experience. This in itself is all a part of that digital divide.

Last, certainly, not least, racial, culture, language. All of this plays a role and more in that skill set component along with accessibility component and how are we going to as educators, as key stakeholders within our community, leaders, be a part of the solution to close that divide.

Age-related issues, socioeconomic factors, geographic causes, racial, cultural, and language. Again, digitalresponsibility.org is the source on that there.

Step two, to navigate digital equity we must understand digital equity, and so now we’re going to go and delve into what does it mean—what does digital equity mean. So I’m taking my definition, again, from the National League of Cities.

Digital equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. This is huge.

So, again, as you heard me talk about the digital divide just moments ago, it’s the component of accessibility and skill. That skill is then where we get into productive citizenship through society, democracy, and economy, and so now we’re talking about how does this tool, this instrument—it’s much more than just accessibility. Now how do I engage? How am I advancing my family, my economic—social economic realities through this instrument and tool?

The definition goes on to say—again, by the National League of Cities—digital equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.

Case in point, life. As we think about all aspects of life from employment to social participation—as we think social media engagement, employment, we all understand what that means; lifelong learning, certainly as educators we have to think about that component—and then accessibility to the tools that we need, I think about my own child who this past weekend had to reach out for virtual assistance from medical care for an earache that he was having. My ability to have the skill set and accessibility to reach out, obtain those resources for my family, and engage through an electronic means to fulfill what my needs were are all a part of this equity. Life in itself should be able to remain whole in what I produce and how it is able to produce within me, and that is in itself digital equity.

So step three, let’s discuss how to navigate digital equity in higher education and, again, hello to all of our educators that are on the call today. So here’s some tips that I want to leave for you on today just to think about, and I look forward to our conversation that we’re about to have here in a moment.

Number one, as educators—and we’re talking about navigating digital equity—it is so important that we understand who we’re serving. I say that because, unfortunately, what can happen is especially as educators and we think about the economy, the disruptions that we’re experiencing in the marketplace right now, we’ll sometimes pursue who we want, not necessarily who we have, and that’s unfortunate.

As we think about the respective institutional missions and the spaces in which we serve, we have to be mission centered and embrace who it is that we’re serving because we owe it to those students who are pursuing their academic endeavors and their professional endeavors through our respective institutions to totally be served. We must understand their realities.

One of the conversations we have here at the Community College of Aurora is the conversation about you don’t know who is actually sitting, respectively, in that seat in that classroom and what they had to overcome in order to sit in that seat that particular day.

Do we know how many bus routes they had to take? Do we understand the challenges that they were having with their children? Do we know are they now leaving their second job that they’ve worked for the past twenty-four hours to now sit in your classroom?

So we have to understand, be aware, and approach that engagement with a sense of grace. I think that’s a word that we, perhaps, haven’t necessarily embraced in the academy in the way in which we have—should have, but now more than ever we have to.

Secondly, create systems that level the learning engagement field. So it’s this idea of privilege—this thought of privilege—and, perhaps, what we assumed that everyone had access to and what everyone had the ability to engage with that they don’t necessarily have, and if they do have accessibility to it do we have a true understanding of what all they have to do to have that level of engagement and accessibility?

Again, case in point, bus routes. Think about what’s happening around our country. There has been a reduction from a transportation standpoint financially, and many of the routes and the transportation services that have been provided—some of this due to disruption, others due to areas in which there have had to be a funneling of tax dollars and resources in other spaces and places in our communities.

Long story short, the reality is, is that in many communities the bus routes have had to be reduced, which means that individuals are either having to walk or find ways to public accessibility to some of these resources in terms of broadband access and computer access.

So then as we’re teaching and we’re instructing and we’re providing services, we have to think about how can we level the playing field and remove barriers? Does it have to be performed—does that learning outcome have to come in the form of computer access and broadband accessibility?

And maybe it does, so this takes us to point number three. Let’s promote community resources to close the digital divide. I think that laser focus on how we’re going to close that divide creates this space for equity, and so, perhaps, it’s through libraries.

There’s one organization out of North Carolina in some of their rural spaces they have now through grant funds created different spaces in their rural communities for those in more rural spaces to gain access to a computer lab and the grants are sustaining that accessibility through computer labs in those rural spaces. Amazing resource.

There’s many others and examples that we can share around the country. So with that said, let’s promote these community resources. Sometimes it’s a library. Sometimes it’s a grant-funded opportunity. Sometimes it’s a local nonprofit. So let’s talk about how we can be creative in our respective communities to close the gap there.

Fourth, adjust learning experiences to be more inclusive. Not only do we need to create the systems to level the playing field but we must then adjust the learning experiences to be more inclusive to create learning spaces and engagement spaces for all, going back to not only accessibility but skill.

Last, certainly not least, providing institutional resources to close the digital divide. What I mean by this is, is that, in closing, due to—through the pandemic and many of our institutions received the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds—the HEERF funds. Those HEERF funds were utilized in many different ways. In many cases, we were able to do laptop loan programs. In some spaces they were even doing hotspot loan programs.

And so now that we are coming out of the pandemic what does it look like to sustain these resources, OK, because now that we provide these resources how do we sustain them? How do we ensure that we’re having long-term engagements?

One of the things that I want and I ask from my educators, especially administrators, to look at: How do we close this—(inaudible)—without placing the costs on the backs of our students? They already have enough going on. We don’t need to just move the cost of something on to their tuition and fees.

How can we be even more creative with the engagements and enrollments of our students to being laser focused on what we’re doing to close, again, many of those factors and gaps that were highlighted earlier?

So grateful for the opportunity. Have a website. Would love to engage with you all more. I know we’re getting ready to go into conversation. But itsdrmordecai.com and, again, thank you all so much for the opportunity.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you so much for that overview.

So we’re going to go to all of you for your questions now. You can click the raised hand icon on your screen to ask a question, and on an iPad or a tablet click the more button to access the raised hand feature.

When you’re called upon accept the unmute prompt and please state your name and affiliation followed by a question. You can also submit a written question by the Q&A icon and I will read out the question, and if you do write your question please include your affiliation just to give us a sense of where you’re coming from.

And there are no questions as of yet but I know that will change, or else you were so thorough that nobody has questions. (Laughs.)

So do you see now with the pandemic experience that there will be continued—I’m going to ask the first question—you know, that this has opened up the space now for deeper understanding of the digital divide and bringing the resources to bear?

Or now that we’re kind of post-pandemic or whatever this is people have forgotten about it and are moving on?

BROWNLEE: Thank you so much for the question, my friend.

I think that it’s twofold. There’s two sides of this coin, right. So there’s the one side of the coin where the awareness now is so much deeper and richer than it ever has been because of the amount of resources and what it took to sustain since 2020 those resources that were being provided to the students in the community.

So now there’s many that have learned and they’re now having those conversations about how to sustain the resources because, as we all know, while there’s been an extension of HEERF funds through the Department of Education, that day is coming to an end here pretty soon and so we have to talk about sustainability.

The other side of that coin is, unfortunately, there are those that acknowledge what the realities were but their agenda is more on how do we move past it, not necessarily sustain what we were providing.

That’s part of the issue for some that we have to address because we don’t just move on from hardship, right. That hardship is real and we have to still maintain a laser focus on how we’re going to close the digital divide, especially in the academic spaces, but also understanding our responsibility as not only educators but community leaders, stakeholders within our community, to be a part of the solutions and the expansions on equitable access and resources being made available.

And so I think with both sides of those coins we’re seeing two different realities. But I think that there’s also a need now more than ever to maintain the senses of urgency around the haves and have nots and what we’re going to do to be a part of the solution to ensure that we’re raising the level of accessibility and skill for all within our communities.

FASKIANOS: I noted in your presentation you talked about knowing who your students are. So what advice do you have for higher education educators and leaders who are trying to navigate the digital divide in their classroom and to get to know—to figure out where their students are coming from and what their needs may be?

BROWNLEE: So, as we all know, especially in the IR space, right, there’s different tools, resources, that we can use to survey our students.

There’s different splash pages, if you will, that we can utilize in terms of the enrollment processes or the readvising processes, or even think of some of our learning management tools that we can engage with students to determine what their needs truly are.

I think that it’s important that we create tools and instruments that will have high engagement rates. Sometimes those have to be incentivized. But we have to think about outside of our normal student leader responses how we’re capturing the voice of all of our students.

And so that’s those that would not typically provide response, and as we think about the digital divide we have to acknowledge that that tool, that instrument, can’t just be electronic. What are we going to do to have paper resources or maybe through phone conversations, outreach, being able to have, certainly, the walk around conversations around our respective campuses and the universities.

And so we need to have those conversations to make sure that we’re capturing the voice of all of our students, I think, is in the true spirit of continued improvement. We have to understand who we serve and then acknowledge, through the development of systems and the recalibration of our student experiences, are the voice of these students.

FASKIANOS: Right. And in terms of the skills, because community colleges are so focused on developing the skills, what specifically are you doing at Aurora or are you seeing in the community college space to help students develop those skills that they need to navigate digitally?

BROWNLEE: Absolutely. One of the things I’ll talk about—and those that may not be aware and I don’t know who all has visited Denver—but the history of Aurora—Aurora is the most diverse community—city—in the state of Colorado.

I call that out because immigrants—it has a strong—there’s a strong population in this community and so part of our young thirty-nine years of existence in this community has been providing English second language courses.

We’re noticing that especially our immigrant families and communities that are seeking social and economic mobility, highly skilled from where they come from but now we must create learning opportunities to close that gap, not only through language but through accessibility in this American market.

And so through our community ESL programs we’ve been able to educate upwards of two thousand students a year and walk them through the various levels of learning and engagement with the English language, and then at some point in that process—learning process—we then engage and begin the computer engagement in utilizing the English language in their native language and beginning to close that gap.

So I think that that work in itself is a part of that digital equity that must be created—how do you create the foundation to build upon to then advance the engagement. And there’s been some other great examples that I’ve seen around the country in doing that work, a lot of grant programs that I’ve seen in respective communities.

You heard me talk about what’s happening out there in the Carolinas. But I think about what’s also happening over in California. California has been a great state that’s been able to do some work about working and identifying through heat maps and institutional resource—research and resources and community resources, looking at demographics, identifying low socioeconomic spaces, and putting concentrated efforts in those particular communities to increase the level of engagement, accessibility, and skill, and it’s critical and key.

FASKIANOS: Great. We have a question from Gloria Ayee. So if you can unmute yourself and state your affiliation.

Q: Hello. Thank you so much for sharing this important work that you’re doing.

I am Gloria Ayee and I am a lecturer and senior research fellow at Harvard University, and my question is about the connection between the digital divide and also how it mirrors to current inequities that we see in the educational system in general.

So thinking about that type of relationship, what do you think are the most significant challenges to addressing the digital divide, given the issues that we continue to see with the educational system in general at all types of institutions, and what do you foresee as the best way to actually address these challenges?

BROWNLEE: Oh, that’s a great question. Great question. Thank you so much for asking that question, Gloria.

I would say two things come to mind—funding and agenda, right. So if—I’ll tell you what comes to mind for me. So as we think about financially and we look at how these institutions are funded around the country, let’s think K-12. So grade schools. Think K-12. Let’s also think higher education.

Are we talking headcount? Are we talking full-time equivalency? Are we talking success points? Are we talking—even as we think about developmental education, how are these institutions being funded to sustain the work of working especially with low socioeconomic communities?

Let’s just take, for example, full-time equivalency, especially in this higher education space. So if I were someone who wanted to work to create programs that I’m going to help in the advancing and addressing of the digital divide and advancing digital equity, I need funds in order to do that.

Now, could I pursue grant funds? Absolutely. But even—we all know that grant funds are not necessarily all the time sustainable funds. Short-term funds, but it still has to be a hard-lined. So then as we think about doing this work—I’ll go back to funding and agenda—realizing and looking at what would need to shift within particularly my state’s legislative agenda or, perhaps, in that particular district how the funding is occurring.

If I’m working with a high population, which we are here at the Community College of Aurora—a high population of part-time students, these are students that are maybe taking one class and engaging.

However, if I’m funded by a full-time equivalency model it then takes several students that are taking one class to then equal that one full-time equivalent, which then impacts my funding structure. So then how do I then serve, yet, I am seeking to obtain? And this is where we then get into, I think, a part of that friction of agenda and funding models.

So I think that as we think equity—with an equity mindset beyond just the initiatives of overlay—we actually want to bake in the equity experience within our respective states and communities—then we’re going to have to take a look at the funding agenda, the agenda and funding—how are we truly going to advance equity and closing the digital divide. It has to be funded properly towards sustainability.

We’ve seen this same thing occur in developmental education as well for those who’ve been a part of those conversations where we saw around the country there will be a reduction in developmental education funding, which has been impacted, in some cases, the success rates and resources that were historically provided through community colleges in certain communities.

Same thing in this digital divide space and digital equity. So funding an agenda, and I think that the solution is, is really coming to the table and saying what does equity look like without it being an overlaid agenda, without it just being a conversation?

What does it look like for it to be baked into the experience of how we’re going to transform lives, which then means that, in many cases, legislatively and funding models. We have to move from a transactional mindset to a transformational mindset and we have to go all in on ensuring that we’re creating equitable communities and engagements for those that we serve.

Oh, you’re muted, my friend.

FASKIANOS: Yes. Thank you. After two-and-a-half years—(laughter)—I should know that.

Encourage all of you to share your best practices and what you’re doing in your communities as well.

You know, we have seen the Biden administration really focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They’re focusing on bringing more diversity to the State Department and other parts of the government. Is the Department of Education looking at the funding model? Is this an area that they are actively trying to reform and adjust?

BROWNLEE: I get the sense—and I’ve had the pleasure of speaking in front of several legislators in different venues—I get the sense that there is a major conversation that’s happening. I do. I truly get the sense that there’s a major conversation happening, not just with our current administration from thinking about our U.S. president but also thinking local legislators as well.

I really think that there’s conversations—many conversations that are happening. If anything, I feel as though the major—I don’t want to use the word barrier so I’m searching for the appropriate word here. But I think the major hurdle that we’re going to have to think about is how we have built and designed our funding models to date.

You know, some of these funding models were built in early 1990s, mid-1990s in some cases. Really, you don’t see it too much early 2000s, and so we have older financial modeling infrastructure that we’re trying to pursue this work and how to change it.

And so it can’t be a Band-Aid approach. I think in some spaces and communities that’s what’s been done is that rather than changing the actual model, the infrastructure itself, it’s received a Band-Aid in the form of grants.

And I do believe that grants are significant and, certainly, necessary and appreciated. However, I think that we’re reaching a point in society where there has to be a total restructuring of our funding models and taking a look at what percentages are going where, taking a look at the demographics in our respective communities, taking a look at the economic realities in our respective communities.

Take a look at just how much the demographics are shifting in our respective communities and building a model that’s ready to engage, sustain, and raise the level for all, and I think that we’re on our way. I, certainly, hope that we are.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Rufus Glasper.

Q: I am here.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful.

Q: Hi, Mordecai. How are you today?

BROWNLEE: How are you, sir?

Q: Hi, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Hi, Rufus. Great to hear from you.

Q: Mordecai, talk a little bit about digital equity and faculty. How have they accepted, rejected, embraced what you were describing as all of the different factors that are affecting our students, and what kind of practices have you developed or can be developed to ensure that faculty can continue the progress and include our students who are most needy?

BROWNLEE: Great question, Dr. Glasper. I didn’t expect anything different coming from you.

So, let me just say, we’ve had some very intense conversations, and I have to really give our faculty and our instructors kudos because I will tell you this is probably by far one of the most engaged communities that I’ve ever worked in of educators that are committed to just truly getting to the solution.

There’s some strong work that was done around inclusive excellence here at the Community College of Aurora, certainly, prior to my arrival. It led to this college receiving an Inclusive Excellence Award from the American Association of Community Colleges right around 2017.

Part of their work at that time was looking at, as our faculty and our academy, how were we going to close the gap on success rates, particularly in English and math, and part of that work was creating resources towards gap closure to ensure that those that had not traditionally and historically had access to some of those learning materials and plans and resources that they were being provided those in a more intensive way.

Now as we think more into the digital space and, certainly, think through the pandemic, what we’ve now done as an institution is that we’ve become—Community College of Aurora has become the very first Achieving the Dream institution in the state of Colorado and one of the projects that our faculty and our instructors are delving into—I’ve got a big meeting tomorrow on this, matter of fact—is taking a look at the respective success rates in our gateway courses—our key courses that are gateways into our respective academic programs—and asking ourselves how can we create more equitable learning experiences.

Two things—critical things—that I’ve seen our faculty do.

Number one, looking at the data. I think that the data is key and critical—taking a look, disaggregating that data. And our faculty and our instructors continue to do that work, looking at a three-year spread, a five-year spread, and saying: Where is the success occurring? Who’s it occurring with and those respective identities of those students? And then really asking the hard questions: Why isn’t this population succeeding at the same rate as this population?

The other part of this criticality is, is also then accepting that there can’t be an excuse in the work. There can’t be an excuse in the work and that we must ensure then that we are creating the equitable resources and infrastructure to close the gap, create learning experiences, and say, listen, if our students can’t access the internet and the Web then what can we do to create for them the resources, whether it be paper?

If they can’t come to the teaching demonstration at this particular day how can I create an opportunity for them to engage and obtain that information at another given time? Perhaps they’re a working parent and can’t necessarily attend at 10:00 a.m. but they can at 5:00 p.m. What are we doing to level the playing field with accessibility?

And the other aspect of that is just that our faculty and instructors have been partnering to create these more holistic learning engagement opportunities where if we’re having a conversation in English then what can we do within our math department and almost cohorting, in a sense, the learning experiences amongst those two separate classes but then creating like engagements where the same conversations happening in English could be happening in math and science to begin to bring about a new learning within the students to say, OK, well, this particular world issue, now I’m understanding it through various lenses and I understand the interconnectivity in these learning experiences.

And so more integrated learning, and I think that we’ve got a long way to go but we’re committed to doing that work.

FASKIANOS: So Rufus Glasper is the chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges, and I just thought I would ask you, Rufus, to maybe share your experience as the chancellor what has been working in your community.

Q: I am the chancellor emeritus. I have not been at the colleges for a little over six years now. But I am the president and CEO for the League for Innovation in the Community College.

And one of the things that I’d like to connect with with our experience right now we are involved in the state of Arizona with a project which is—which we are embracing. We are working with four different types of institutions right now—urban metropolitan, we have a couple of rural institutions and we have a couple of tribal, and we’re trying to make that connectiveness between insecurities—student insecurities.

So we’re looking at housing. We’re looking at hunger. We’re looking at jobs. And one of the things that we have found is that we can’t make either of these items connect and work without broadband first, and the reason being when you’re looking at access it’s critical when you start to look at the activities that are occurring throughout the U.S. now and specifically within Arizona—I’ll talk about the connections we have now made that are national in scope, that are city, town, and county in scope, and the commitments that we are now working to obtain from all of those who are in position relative to enhancing broadband access and digital equity.

There’s actually a Center for Digital Equity at Arizona State University (ASU), and last week we had a gathering of all of our institutions to get a better understanding of what does digital equity mean as it comes from the ASU center. What does it mean for each of our different types of institutions, and I will tell you that the one that was hardest hit was the one you talked about and that’s tribal just in terms of access, in terms of resources.

But I am pleased with the dollars that are out there now at all levels. So if this is a time for us to increase access, increase affordability, than I think we should seize the moment.

My question then, which would lead to another one, is on the whole notion of sustainability and you talked about that in terms of stimulus kinds of resources, and equity is in everyone’s face right now, especially broadband and others.

Is it a sustainable initiative and focus and what are the elements that need to be connected in order to make sure that it stays in the forefront and that our students who may have benefited from buses sitting in their neighborhood during the pandemic and others but are still trying to make choices?

And I’ll make the last connection point, and you made the opening—how flexible should our institutions be around work-based learning so that our students who are not able to come to the campus and be there on a regular basis but want to balance having a virtual environment? Do you see a balance coming or do you see us forced into staying the old, antiquated model of face-to-face classes and sixteen and eighteen weeks?

BROWNLEE: Let me start with the sustainability component then. Thank you again, Dr. Glasper.

From a sustainability standpoint, I’ll say here at the institution part of the conversation—it’s a hard conversation. But I encourage every educator to have this conversation, this brave conversation, in your spaces. Let’s take a look at your success rates, and I’m just particularly speaking to higher education right now.

Let’s take a look at your various academic profiles. Let’s take a look at what has been your engagements with your workforce partners, your advisory councils, in many cases, and let’s talk about two things—one, the sustainability of those programs and, two, the social and economic mobility of those programs directly to workforce.

I think what we will find is what we found here at the Community College of Aurora is that over time the various disruptions that have occurred has shifted the needs of our students. However, the institutions respectively delivering these services have not shifted with the times.

And so it is quite possible that either our approach to the work or the actual lack of proper programming is prohibiting social and economic mobility in many of these communities and especially for us. Fifty-two percent of our students are first generation. Sixty-seven percent of our students are students of color.

So as we talk about sustainability, we’re right there on the front line of having to take a look at enrollment, full-time equivalency, completion, graduation, and employment rates, and we began to find a shifting of that. And so when we talk sustainability, I bring this up as a framework, if you will, to say once you’ve had those conversations now let’s talk about where there are losses—financial losses—and areas in which we can truly be innovative and reallocate dollars that were once going in certain areas and infuse that into other areas that are going to have a higher return.

So I think thinking, truly, with a return on investment—an ROI mindset—will then help us to not only meet the needs of our mission, meet it in its current state and its current needs and the disruption that’s currently being experienced, which will then help create new opportunities for sustainability beyond what has just been HEERF funding or potential grant funding, it can be hardlined into the institutional mission.

I think the other component of that sustainability, too, is looking at the strategic plans of our respective organizations, looking at those—not only the mission but the objectives and asking how equity is not necessarily a separate objective but equity is actually ingrained in all aspects of the objectives—the strategic objectives—because, at that point, we can then understand the significance in resourcing and funding equity all the way through the entirety of the institution.

In regards to your latter question about work-based learning and the old model of doing things, I, certainly, believe and hope, Dr. Glasper, that there’s this new movement that’s occurring where we’re going to have to embrace, whether we like it or not, the next era of higher education, and that next era will require us to not approach things in the same modalities and same ways.

We’re watching, especially in research, the confidence levels reduce—heavily reduced now in the public’s perception of what higher education is to provide in comparison to what it once provided. Higher education in many communities isn’t necessarily being seen as the sole or the primary tool towards social economic mobility as it once was twenty, thirty years ago.

So what does this mean? Our approach to sixteen-week instruction is, certainly, going to have to be transformed. What does it look like to have five-week instruction? Eight-week instruction? What does it look like for us to have true noncredit instructional programs that’s in direct partnership with business and industry to ramp up the training and social economic mobility opportunities within our communities?

Folks aren’t necessarily looking for a two-year or a four-year or a six-year learning experience. They need to put food on their family’s table today. What does it look like for them to engage with the institution and have that kind of learning experience, and we have to do it with a digital equity mindset, right, because they’re seeking opportunity. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have accessibility in their current state.

We want to get them to a state where they can have that accessibility. So how then do we create those tools?

One key component of this is even looking at our college application processes. What is the readability score on some of these applications? We want to educate those that may have a reading level of a—seventh or eighth grade reading level.

But some of these college applications are reading at a fourteen, fifteen grade reading level. That in itself is creating a barrier to those that are seeking opportunity, that need the opportunity to up skill.

And so I think that the old model is going to, in my opinion, and hopefully quickly deteriorate and we’re going to have to be more effective.

But let me also say this. It is critical that we have our faculty and our instructors at the table. These decisions shouldn’t be thrown upon them. It should be conversations that we’re having collectively together, and then how can then we resource our faculty and our instructors and our staff to be a part of those solutions, drive those solutions, reinvest in them to be able to create more innovative and more, I’ll say the word, relevant learning experiences because I truly believe that relevance is not necessarily a word that we’ve used in higher education in terms of our approach, but now more than ever we’re going to have to.


So I’m going to take a written question from Nicole Muthoni, who is an entrepreneur and innovator at the University of Connecticut. She has been passionately working on bridging the divide in emergent nations, especially Kenya. Therefore, in this regard, the key factors creating the digital divide in this space is geographic causes, socioeconomic factors, and culture.

So the question is what tools and programs can we use to effectively educate teachers to learn the necessary skills that they can use to teach their students in the classrooms. This is because most of the teachers have not been empowered with the necessary and needed skills for educating in the space of digital equity.

BROWNLEE: I think—I began to speak to that right towards the end of what I was just sharing, right.


BROWNLEE: It’s this idea of we’ve got to get out of the blame game. Oh, I want you to come up with the solution. Well, how are you investing in me to be a part of the solution? How are you even engaging me in part of being the solution?

You know, as I talked earlier about those conversations we’re having at CCA about what are those programs that have been unsustainable or times have shifted and changed and we needed to create some more relevant learning experiences. It is our faculty and our instructors that made that decision to be able to say, hey, it’s time to pivot.

They were at the table. Not just present for the sake of inclusion but, truly, the decision makers in that work. Now, I think, the next component of this work as we talked about achieving the dream and us being the first in the state of Colorado, part of our strategic plan is creating a—we don’t have a name so just work with me here conceptually.

We don’t have a name yet. But I can tell you what the desired outcome is, and the desired outcome is that we create a learning center for our faculty and our instructors to grow and to be invested in and to learn what are those emerging approaches that will—on the verge of becoming best practices. However, they’re not, quote/unquote, “best practices” around the country yet.

What could we create here at CCA to be a part of those solutions? And also exposure to national best practice. What are we doing to invest into our people?

So I think that part of that shifting that Dr. Glasper was calling out is going to have to occur now more than ever because, unfortunately, what’s happened, I think, in the academy too many of our instructors and faculty have been blamed.

Too many of our staff had been blamed, not engaged and brought about to be the solution, and not just thrown right out there in the fire to say come up with something.

No. You need to care for your folks more deeply, more passionately, and more genuinely than we have ever before and really ask the question how are we going to be relevant and make sure that our folks feel cared for and that they’re valued in the spaces in which they’re serving.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

So the next question is from Krishna Garza-Baker from the University of Texas at San Antonio. What would you say is the role of private service providers and their ability to assist in reducing the digital divide?

Are they doing enough to collaborate with higher education institutions to address this area, specifically, internet service providers?

And I’m going to add on to that. What are your recommendations for how schools can and should be leveraging corporate and community partnerships to help address the digital divide?

BROWNLEE: You know, you heard me earlier talk about how we can’t just do this overlay approach.

Yes, I want to give you a voucher for reduced broadband access. That’s wonderful. It is. It is grateful. It’s better than not having it.

But now let’s talk about how we’re truly going to hardline in opportunities for all. As we think about the spirit of advocacy, unfortunately, sometimes, as they say, it’s the squeaky wheel gets the grease, I think, is how it’s communicated.

And so what I would say is, is that now we have to think about those that don’t have a voice how we’re still meeting their needs. And so working directly with corporate industry partners, those who have the access. What does it look like if we focus less on trying to make a dollar and more on trying to create opportunity? What would it look like if we all came about and said we want to be the solution to the issue?

Yes, there’s areas and opportunities where we’ll make that dollar. But as we think about society as a whole, what does it look like to create experiences and a life for the goodness of all? And so I think that now we really more than ever have to have these conversations.

More than ever it just can’t be who gets the voucher. It’s how do you create the accessibility for all, those who have a voice and those who know how to use their voice. And I think that—if I understand the nature of that question now, I will say with private entities, corporate partnerships, I think it’s more visibility in these colleges and universities and these nonprofit spaces beyond the cameras and just looking at the campaigns.

What does it look like for us to have the conversations day in and day out to say we’re neighbors, we’re all going to collectively be a part of the solutions and to bring the rising up, if you will, of our communities to raise the level for all and that’s, certainly, what we’re seeking to do.

We’ve seen some major responsiveness in this particular community to say, listen, outside of just some campaign and a picture, what does it look like for you all to be a part of our learning experience, a part of our community, a part of our solutions, and to hardline these experiences for all.

So equity causes and it charges and it demands that, and we have to realize the power of that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Laila Bichara from SUNY Farmingdale.

Many of my students are immigrants and are first-generation college students. My question is about skill transfer—once our students get access to technology for themselves and their families who are then losing their jobs due to automation.

BROWNLEE: Demographic shift. I talked about it earlier.

You know, I think about here in the Denver Metro area and I’m going to—I attended a site visit conversation with their chamber of commerce there in Denver. It was pretty telling.

In looking at the demographics, it broke down how for millennials, I think, there’s currently—so there’s 3.3 million in the greater Denver area. It broke down for millennials, which I fall into this group—I think it was eight hundred and sixty-four thousand millennials currently in that space.

Then it had Xers. Not Xers. It had generation Z. Z accounted for, roughly, six hundred thousand. But get this. So my children, my eight- and my four-year-old—they’re generation alpha—were only accounting for, roughly, three hundred thousand in the space currently right now.

I say that as an example that I’m going to walk us through really quickly, and that is, is with the lens of equity and we think about the shifting and the disruptions in market and we think about especially now in the markets humanization versus automation, and we want to create social and economic mobility for these respective spaces wherever those realities are and we think about accessibility to the internet and we talk about that digital equity and the digital divide, we then have to have a high degree of urgency within us to say that what will—can we create today that will prevent communities of color and low socioeconomic communities that traditionally in this current market would have been given opportunities but that in the future market, due to a lack of potential skill and accessibility, will not be provided the resources and the opportunities that they once were in an automated world.

And so what do we do then to make sure that they’re not the one pressing the button. They’re the one that’s coding the button, right, and that’s all a part of that work and that shifting. So it’s going to take stronger math and science skills and accessibility and equity all built into their learning experiences because if not the wide—we will widen the gap—the poverty gap—because we move, again, deeper into automation, lessen the humanization, and then we are essentially moving an entire population of folks further down the supply chain, if you will, which then will prohibit their learning—not learning, their earning ability.

And so we have to be laser focused on those realities and, really, look to eradicate what’s going to be future barriers now so systematically we are able to address it.


So the last question I wanted to ask you is you’ve just completed your first year as president. What are the lessons that you’ve learned?

BROWNLEE: Oh, my gosh. I will tell you that, you know, I just released an article on this talking about my first year in the presidency and through EdSurge and lessons learned, and one of those lessons I would say is is—that I highlighted in that article is, you know, don’t do more for an institution than you would do for your own family.

I think that as educators, as community leaders, and anyone that’s on this call, I’ll just take the opportunity to encourage you. You know, sometimes we give our all to these entities in which we serve, and we do it and we give it countless hours. You know, we say it’s a forty-hour job but we’re probably spending fifty, sixty, seventy, if not more, and we get lost in that, right.

And so there’s good work to be done. However, what is the biggest mockery of all to save the world but lose your own family? And I think that part of my lesson that I had to really reflect on was, like, right now as I’m giving this lecture my eight-year-old son is here in the office with me right now that I’m trying to get to be quiet and work with me as I’m giving—having this time with you all now, right. He doesn’t have school today. It’s an in-service day.

But really creating those engagements for my family to be engaged in the experiences and making sure that they’re part of the process.

I think the other component of this is, too—and I talked about this in the article—is realizing that it is a privilege to serve, never taking for granted the ability, the opportunity, that we have to serve because there’s others that wish that they had these opportunities.

So, yes, even in our most—our days of most frustration it still is a pleasure and a blessing and an opportunity to serve and honor.

And so what would life look like if we embraced it for the pleasure and the honor that it truly is and how we treat and create spaces for others to thrive, because they’re sacrificing being away from their families and loved ones to do this work. We need to create more communities for all to thrive.

FASKIANOS: Oh, your son should be very proud of you. I have to say that—what a role model.

BROWNLEE: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Laurette Foster.

Laurette, please say your affiliation. It’s great to have you on.

Q: Hi. Laurette Foster, Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

And I really don’t have a question. I just want to say how delighted I was to hear the conversation and hear about what the next steps are, because looking back at the pandemic and how we wanted to step up and do so much and I’m just afraid that even though we did those things that needed to be done that many of us now are settling back into the old ways.

And it’s still funny that when you told the story about the tribal community happened to go to the top of the mountain from 2:00 in the morning to do—the passion for education is there with the kids. But we have to continue to do our part.

So I just appreciate all the comments and—that you did today. It was really enlightening. So thank you very much.

BROWNLEE: And thank you, and I will say that my wife is a proud product of Prairie View A&M. The Hill as well. So just thank you for your comments.

FASKIANOS: We have another thank you from John Marks of LSU of Alexandria just saying that it was really great to take time out of his day and to—said they—definitely in Louisiana access and skills are, indeed, real obstacles that are typical of every online class that he’s taught.

I’m going to take the final question from Haetham Abdul-Razaq from Northwest Vista College, again, from San Antonio, Texas, working on a research project regarding online learning and community college students.

One of the interesting findings is that some students might be considered as tech savvy, yet they have problems engaging in online classes. Do you think that we should build on the strengths of our students’ digital knowledge when it comes to these sorts of skills?

BROWNLEE: Great question.

Absolutely. I think, you know, we talk about creating student-centered approaches and sometimes we’re successful at that and other times we’re not, perhaps, because if we were to really delve into student-centered approaches just how far from our base currently of how we approach higher education just how far it’ll take us.

But I would say, going back to an earlier conversation, now’s the time more than ever to go there. Matter of fact, we should have went there already before. It’s time, truly, for a revolution and an evolution in our approach to learning and engagement and advancement with an equity lens.

And I go back to that word relevance. We have to create more relevant learning experiences. Think about business and industry. If we look at what’s happened over the past ten years due to some of our bureaucracies and our lack of responsiveness.

Look at business and industry. They’re creating learning experiences right around higher education, in some cases not even engaging higher education anymore, directly working with middle schools and high schools to create their own strong pipelines. What has happened that that even came about, right?

And so due to a lack of responsiveness, perhaps, innovation—true innovation—and that student-centered approach that we, perhaps, moved far from or maybe just took parts of that was easier to tackle, not the harder aspects of that, and so we now have to tackle it.

We have to embrace it, because if not I think that five, ten years from now, certainly, twenty years from now, we’ll have more institutional closures, more reductions in enrollments, if we fail to be responsive and create these more equitable learning opportunities that are geared at creating a digital equity.

FASKIANOS: Right. Well, we are just at the end of our time.

Thank you very much, Dr. Mordecai Brownlee. We really appreciate your being with us and sharing your insights, and to all of you for your questions and comments.

And so you can follow Dr. Mordecai and also go to his website, itsdrmordecai.com, and at @itsdrmordecai, correct?

BROWNLEE: That is correct. That is correct. I look forward to engaging with everyone.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. We really appreciate it.

Just as a reminder for all of you, our next Higher Education webinar will be on Wednesday, November 2, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. Rebecca Granato, associate vice president for global initiatives at Bard College, will talk about refugees, migration, and education. So we hope you’ll tune in for that.

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out CFR fellowships for educators at CFR.org/fellowships, and this is a program that allows educators to come for a year in residence at CFR or else go work in—we place you in government to get some policy-relevant experience. The deadline is October 31.

So if you’re interested email us and we can send you information about that. Also, go to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis, and follow us at @CFR_Academic.

Thank you all again. Thank you, Dr. Brownlee. We appreciate it, and we hope you have a good rest of the day.



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