Opinion: Technology crucial in supporting first-gen students

Colleges and universities looking to augment first-generation students’ learning, academic engagement, and social support, should increase their use of digital tools that advance those goals, according to an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed.

Meeting students’ academic needs via web-based apps

The three co-authors—Ana M. Martinez Aleman, Heather Rowan-Kenyon, and Mandy Savitz-Romer—share findings from their book, Technology and Engagement: Making Technology Work for First Generation College Students. Noting that many high schools insufficiently prepare first-generation students in “the principles of academic writing (mechanics: sentence structure, grammar, etc.), discipline-specific vocabulary and conceptualizations, and analytical skills,” the authors say that some of those students independently turn to online apps in order to “fill in the gaps in their understanding.” Colleges, they say, can seize on and encourage that instinct by providing students with mobile phones or iPads and investing in apps that provide “scaffolding for first-gens’ academic transition.” Dictionary services, note-taking tutorials, guided visualizations of literary analysis, time management tools, real-time peer and faculty essay annotations, and even social media all can support students’ “progress in content not well covered by their high schools.”

A comfortable, efficient option for answering questions

In their research, the authors found that by deploying these technologies, colleges and universities gave first-generation students an opportunity both to become more engaged learners and to avoid the shame of asking foundational questions in public. “Students shared that they would not have been comfortable raising their hands to ask what the particular words meant, for fear of being seen as unintelligent or uneducated by their peers and faculty,” the authors write.

Accessing support networks through social media

The authors also found that “simpler, more frequent, and no-cost communication through social media, FaceTime, and messaging apps played an important role in helping first-gen students maintain their ties to family and home support.” They note that, whereas many colleges encourage new students to become more independent, relying less on their parents, research has shown that those family connections are “critical for first-gen student success.” Thus, the authors encourage faculty to respect the “wide diversity in students and their families who play a key role in helping first-gen students persevere in the classroom.”

Furthermore, the authors encourage older first-generation students, teaching assistants, and peers to use social media as a tool for deepening supportive relationships with first-generation students, delivering campus knowledge, and fostering engagement.

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