With the changing demographics of higher education, we are beginning to really grapple with questions about the first-generation college student: what defines them, what drives them, and what gets them to graduation. First-generation college students lack a legacy of information or the institutional knowledge about college passed down through generations of familial and communal college graduates. Without informational sources and support, first-generation students find themselves wandering through a labyrinth of linguist and cultural barriers that define them as “others” in a system dominated by insiders. Like most cultural institutions, some of these barriers were created over time and out of convenience for the ultimate insiders—faculty, staff, and administration—to improve their ability to navigate the system. While other barriers were created as gatekeeping devices precisely to bar the way for these educational “others.” Admissions processes, “weed out” courses, and academese are all part of the artificially created barriers meant to deter students who “shouldn’t be here.”
As a first-generation college student, many of my micro-barriers centered on asking for help whether it on a homework assignment, a graduate school application, or a letter of recommendation. It had little to do with people’s willingness to help me—when I ultimately did ask, people were delighted to offer their assistance—and more to do with my own insecurities about my place in the academic system. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I see this same scenario play out with my first-generation students who would rather send me an email to ask a question than raise their hands during class. I say this not out of frustration, but truly, out of envy. If email had been the preferred method of contact (or a method of contact) for any of my professors, I would have certainly taken the same path (of less resistance). That is why I hold such a hope for the ways that technology and online teaching can help us reach, retain, and graduate the first-generation college student.
A Question of Access
For the first-generation college student, one of the largest barriers to higher education is being able to access the information they need. First-generation college students are rarely going to “stop in” a staff office or “drop by” a professor’s office hours. Instead, digital resources can help students fill in the legacy of information gap by speaking directly to the “unwritten rules” of academia. These digital resources may be at the institution, department, or course level, and they can provide round-the-clock access to information:
- At the institution level, resources on how to navigate college, frequently asked questions, and information about campus culture can help to breakdown some of the micro-barriers.
- At the department-level, we can use digital information to help dispel some of the complicated systems such as advising, registration, and requirements.
- At the course-level, faculty can provide digital resources through their online course sites that speak to issues such as accessing course and campus resources, conducting and writing research, and studying techniques.
Such resources provide first-generation college students with the information to be confident in their academic journey.
No Dumb Questions
We’ve all used the saying “there are no dumb questions in this class,” and while we all may believe it, saying it is not like waving a magical participation wand. Students who struggle with imposter syndrome and other insecurities will still feel that their question will be the one “dumb question” that breaks this rule. In part, it’s a matter of trust and if they trust us enough to put themselves out there for possible rejection and ridicule. The other part is a matter of confidence and if they are confident enough in their question. Instead of having students weigh this risk/reward scenario, technology can help us put some teeth behind our “no dumb questions” policy. Apps like BackChannel Chat and Poll Everywherehelp us to ensure the askers’ anonymity and take away the fear of being “outed.” These and other messaging apps give students a platform to ask questions and become part of the conversation in a way that traditional methods cannot replicate.
Class Time All the Time
While online courses are certainly not for everyone, there is a great potential for online education when it comes to first-generation college students. Online courses and course design are increasingly becoming more user-friendly, and faculty members are being better trained themselves on the technology. Online courses offer first-generation students many opportunities, including:
Ask me anything! Because of the nature of online courses, students feel more comfortable using the technology to ask questions. This might be the embedded technology of the learning management system like discussion boards and chats or the ancillary technology of email. Because students can edit their questions, they feel more confident in the asking.
Interactive resources. Online courses offer faculty the opportunity to embed interactive resources that will help to build confidence in first-generation college students. For instance, a faculty member might provide a scholarly, online dictionary alongside a complicated journal article. There are also apps like ThingLink that make online learning interactive and engaging while also building confidence in research methods.
Play, Pause, Repeat. Online classes allow all students—including first-generation—to access the course materials any time, all the time. This allows students the opportunity to view and review course lectures and materials at their speed. This means that when they ask questions, they know precisely how, when, and why to ask them, which helps to build confidence and breakdown the barriers of self-questioning.
First-gen students have unique strengths and talents that enrich our classrooms and our colleges. By using technology, we play to those unique strengths and talents while also building knowledge and confidence.
About the Author
Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College. Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl. She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered